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Title: Birds and Man
Author: Hudson, W. H. (William Henry), 1841-1922
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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BIRDS AND MAN



  +----------------------------+
  |    _BY THE SAME AUTHOR_    |
  |                            |
  | Birds in a Village         |
  |                            |
  | Adventures among Birds     |
  |                            |
  | Nature in Downland         |
  |                            |
  | Hampshire Days             |
  |                            |
  | The Land's End             |
  |                            |
  | A Shepherd's Life          |
  |                            |
  | Afoot in England           |
  |                            |
  | The Purple Land            |
  |                            |
  | Green Mansions             |
  |                            |
  | A Crystal Age              |
  |                            |
  | South American Sketches    |
  |                            |
  | The Naturalist in La Plata |
  |                            |
  | A Little Boy Lost          |
  |                            |
  +----------------------------+



   [Illustration]



BIRDS AND MAN

BY

W. H. HUDSON


LONDON

DUCKWORTH & CO.

3 HENRIETTA STREET, COVENT GARDEN, W.C.


_New Edition published by Duckworth & Co. 1915_

Re-issued 1920



This book has been out of print for several years and has been somewhat
altered for this new edition. The order in which the chapters originally
appeared is changed. One chapter dealing mainly with bird life in the
Metropolis, a subject treated fully in another work, has been omitted;
two new chapters are added, and some fresh matter introduced throughout
the work.



CONTENTS


  CHAP.                                                         PAGE

     I. Birds at their Best                                        1
    II. Birds and Man                                             37
   III. Daws in the West Country                                  58
    IV. Early Spring in Savernake Forest                          79
     V. A Wood Wren at Wells                                     101
    VI. The Secret of the Willow Wren                            117
   VII. Secret of the Charm of Flowers                           133
  VIII. Ravens in Somerset                                       159
    IX. Owls in a Village                                        173
     X. The Strange and Beautiful Sheldrake                      187
    XI. Geese: an Appreciation and a Memory                      199
   XII. The Dartford Warbler                                     222
  XIII. Vert--Vert; or Parrot Gossip                             249
   XIV. Something Pretty in a Glass Case                         269
    XV. Selborne                                                 283
        Index                                                    303



BIRDS AND MAN



CHAPTER I

BIRDS AT THEIR BEST


_By Way of Introduction_

Years ago, in a chapter concerning eyes in a book of Patagonian
memories, I spoke of the unpleasant sensations produced in me by the
sight of stuffed birds. Not bird skins in the drawers of a cabinet, it
will be understood, these being indispensable to the ornithologist, and
very useful to the larger class of persons who without being
ornithologists yet take an intelligent interest in birds. The
unpleasantness was at the sight of skins stuffed with wool and set up on
their legs in imitation of the living bird, sometimes (oh, mockery!) in
their "natural surroundings." These "surroundings" are as a rule
constructed or composed of a few handfuls of earth to form the floor of
the glass case--sand, rock, clay, chalk, or gravel; whatever the
material may be it invariably has, like all "matter out of place," a
grimy and depressing appearance. On the floor are planted grasses,
sedges, and miniature bushes, made of tin or zinc and then dipped in a
bucket of green paint. In the chapter referred to it was said, "When the
eye closes in death, the bird, except to the naturalist, becomes a mere
bundle of dead feathers; crystal globes may be put into the empty
sockets, and a bold life-imitating attitude given to the stuffed
specimen, but the vitreous orbs shoot forth no life-like glances: the
'passion and the life whose fountains are within' have vanished, and the
best work of the taxidermist, who has given a life to his bastard art,
produces in the mind only sensations of irritation and disgust."

That, in the last clause, was wrongly writ. It should have been _my_
mind, and the minds of those who, knowing living birds intimately as I
do, have the same feeling about them.

This, then, being my feeling about stuffed birds, set up in their
"natural surroundings," I very naturally avoid the places where they are
exhibited. At Brighton, for instance, on many occasions when I have
visited and stayed in that town, there was no inclination to see the
Booth Collection, which is supposed to be an ideal collection of British
birds; and we know it was the life-work of a zealous ornithologist who
was also a wealthy man, and who spared no pains to make it perfect of
its kind. About eighteen months ago I passed a night in the house of a
friend close to the Dyke Road, and next morning, having a couple of
hours to get rid of, I strolled into the museum. It was painfully
disappointing, for though no actual pleasure had been expected, the
distress experienced was more than I had bargained for. It happened that
a short time before, I had been watching the living Dartford warbler, at
a time when the sight of this small elusive creature is loveliest, for
not only was the bird in his brightest feathers, but his surroundings
were then most perfect--

   The whin was frankincense and flame.

His appearance, as I saw him then and on many other occasions in
the furze-flowering season, is fully described in a chapter in
this book; but on this particular occasion while watching my bird
I saw it in a new and unexpected aspect, and in my surprise and
delight I exclaimed mentally, "Now I have seen the furze wren at
his very best!"

It was perhaps a very rare thing--one of those effects of light on
plumage which we are accustomed to see in birds that have glossed
metallic feathers, and, more rarely, in other kinds. Thus the
turtle-dove when flying from the spectator with a strong
sunlight on its upper plumage, sometimes at a distance of two to
three hundred yards, appears of a shining whiteness.

I had been watching the birds for a couple of hours, sitting quite
still on a tuft of heather among the furze-bushes, and at
intervals they came to me, impelled by curiosity and solicitude,
their nests being near, but, ever restless, they would never
remain more than a few seconds at a time in sight. The prettiest
and the boldest was a male, and it was this bird that in the end
flew to a bush within twelve yards of where I sat, and perching on
a spray about on a level with my eyes exhibited himself to me in
his characteristic manner, the long tail raised, crest erect,
crimson eye sparkling, and throat puffed out with his little
scolding notes. But his colour was no longer that of the furze
wren: seen at a distance the upper plumage always appears
slaty-black; near at hand it is of a deep slaty-brown; now it was
dark, sprinkled or frosted over with a delicate greyish-white, the
white of oxidised silver; and this rare and beautiful appearance
continued for a space of about twenty seconds; but no sooner did
he flit to another spray than it vanished, and he was once
more the slaty-brown little bird with a chestnut-red breast.

It is unlikely that I shall ever again see the furze wren in this
aspect, with a curious splendour wrought by the sunlight in the
dark but semi-translucent delicate feathers of his mantle; but its
image is in the mind, and, with a thousand others equally
beautiful, remains to me a permanent possession.

As I went in to see the famous Booth Collection, a thought of the
bird I have just described came into my mind; and glancing round
the big long room with shelves crowded with stuffed birds, like
the crowded shelves of a shop, to see where the Dartford warblers
were, I went straight to the case and saw a group of them fastened
to a furze-bush, the specimens twisted by the stuffer into a
variety of attitudes--ancient, dusty, dead little birds, painful to
look at--a libel on nature and an insult to a man's intelligence.

It was a relief to go from this case to the others, which were not
of the same degree of badness, but all, like the furze wrens, were
in their natural surroundings--the pebbles, bit of turf, painted
leaves, and what not, and, finally, a view of the wide world
beyond, the green earth and the blue sky, all painted on
the little square of deal or canvas which formed the back of the
glass case.

Listening to the talk of other visitors who were making the round
of the room, I heard many sincere expressions of admiration: they
were really pleased and thought it all very wonderful. That is, in
fact, the common feeling which most persons express in such
places, and, assuming that it is sincere, the obvious explanation
is that they know no better. They have never properly seen
anything in nature, but have looked always with mind and the inner
vision preoccupied with other and familiar things--indoor scenes
and objects, and scenes described in books. If they had ever
looked at wild birds properly--that is to say, emotionally--the
images of such sights would have remained in their minds; and,
with such a standard for comparison, these dreary remnants of dead
things set before them as restorations and as semblances of life
would have only produced a profoundly depressing effect.

We hear of the educational value of such exhibitions, and it may be
conceded that they might be made useful to young students of zoology,
by distributing the specimens over a large area, arranged in scattered
groups so as to give a rough idea of the relationship existing among
its members, and of all together to other neighbouring groups, and to
others still further removed. The one advantage of such a plan to the
young student would be, that it would help him to get rid of the false
notion, which classification studied in books invariably produces,
that nature marshals her species in a line or row, or her genera in a
chain. But no such plan is ever attempted, probably because it would
only be for the benefit of about one person in five hundred visitors,
and the expense would be too great.

As things are, these collections help no one, and their effect is
confusing and in many ways injurious to the mind, especially to
the young. A multitude of specimens are brought before the sight,
each and every one a falsification and degradation of nature, and
the impression left is of an assemblage, or mob, of incongruous
forms, and of a confusion of colours. The one comfort is that
nature, wiser than our masters, sets herself against this rude
system of overloading the brain. She is kind to her wild children
in their intemperance, and is able to relieve the congested mind,
too, from this burden. These objects in a museum are not and
cannot be viewed emotionally, as we view living forms and all
nature; hence they do not, and we being what we are, cannot,
register lasting impressions.

It needed a long walk on the downs to get myself once more
in tune with the outdoor world after that distuning experience;
but just before quitting the house in the Dyke Road an old memory
came to me and gave me some relief, inasmuch as it caused me to
smile. It was a memory of a tale of the Age of Fools, which I
heard long years ago in the days of my youth.

I was at a small riverine port of the Plata river, called Ensenada
de Barragán, assisting a friend to ship a number of sheep which he
had purchased in Buenos Ayres and was sending to the Banda
Oriental--the little republic on the east side of the great
sea-like river. The sheep, numbering about six thousand, were
penned at the side of the creek where the small sailing ships were
lying close to the bank, and a gang of eight men were engaged in
carrying the animals on board, taking them one by one on their
backs over a narrow plank, while I stood by keeping count. The men
were gauchos, all but one--a short, rather grotesque-looking
Portuguese with one eye. This fellow was the life and soul of the
gang, and with his jokes and antics kept the others in a merry
humour. It was an excessively hot day, and at intervals of about
an hour the men would knock off work, and, squatting on the muddy
bank, rest and smoke their cigarettes; and on each occasion
the funny one-eyed Portuguese would relate some entertaining
history. One of these histories was about the Age of Fools, and
amused me so much that I remember it to this day. It was the
history of a man of that remote age, who was born out of his time,
and who grew tired of the monotony of his life, even of the
society of his wife, who was no whit wiser than the other
inhabitants of the village they lived in. And at last he resolved
to go forth and see the world, and bidding his wife and friends
farewell he set out on his travels. He travelled far and met with
many strange and entertaining adventures, which I must be pardoned
for not relating, as this is not a story-book. In the end he
returned safe and sound to his home, a much richer man than when
he started; and opening his pack he spread out before his wife an
immense number of gold coins, with scores of precious stones, and
trinkets of the greatest value. At the sight of this glittering
treasure she uttered a great scream of joy and jumping up rushed
from the room. Seeing that she did not return, he went to look for
her, and after some searching discovered that she had rushed down
to the wine-cellar and knocking open a large cask of wine had
jumped into it and drowned herself for pure joy.

"Thus happily ended his adventures," concluded the
one-eyed cynic, and they all got up and resumed their work of
carrying sheep to the boat.

It was one of the adventures met with by the man of the tale in
his travels that came into my mind when I was in the Booth Museum,
and caused me to smile. In his wanderings in a thinly settled
district, he arrived at a village where, passing by the church,
his attention was attracted by a curious spectacle. The church was
a big building with a rounded roof, and great blank windowless
walls, and the only door he could see was no larger than the door
of a cottage. From this door as he looked a small old man came out
with a large empty sack in his hands. He was very old, bowed and
bent with infirmities, and his long hair and beard were white as
snow. Toddling out to the middle of the churchyard he stood still,
and grasping the empty sack by its top, held it open between his
outstretched arms for a space of about five minutes; then with a
sudden movement of his hands he closed the sack's mouth, and still
grasping it tightly, hurried back to the church as fast as his
stiff joints would let him, and disappeared within the door. By
and by he came forth again and repeated the performance, and then
again, until the traveller approached and asked him what
he was doing. "I am lighting the church," said the old man; and he
then went on to explain that it was a large and a fine church,
full of rich ornaments, but very dark inside--so dark that when
people came to service the greatest confusion prevailed, and they
could not see each other or the priest, nor the priest them. It
had always been so, he continued, and it was a great mystery; he
had been engaged by the fathers of the village a long time back,
when he was a young man, to carry sunlight in to light the
interior; but though he had grown old at his task, and had carried
in many, many thousands of sackfuls of sunlight every year, it
still remained dark, and no one could say why it was so.

It is not necessary to relate the sequel: the reader knows by now
that in the end the dark church was filled with light, that the
traveller was feasted and honoured by all the people of the
village, and that he left them loaded with gifts.

Parables of this kind as a rule can have no moral or hidden
meaning in an age so enlightened as this; yet oddly enough we do
find among us a delusion resembling that of the villagers who
thought they could convey sunshine in a sack to light their dark
church. It is one of a group or family of indoor delusions
and illusions, which Mr Sully has not mentioned in his book on
that fascinating subject. One example of the particular delusion I
have been speaking of, in which it is seen in its crudest form,
may be given here.

A man walking by the water-side sees by chance a kingfisher fly
past, its colour a wonderful blue, far surpassing in beauty and
brilliancy any blue he has ever seen in sky or water, or in flower
or stone, or any other thing. No sooner has he seen than he wishes
to become the possessor of that rare loveliness, that shining
object which, he fondly imagines, will be a continual delight to
him and to all in his house,--an ornament comparable to that
splendid stone which the poor fisherman found in a fish's belly,
which was his children's plaything by day and his candle by night.
Forthwith he gets his gun and shoots it, and has it stuffed and
put in a glass case. But it is no longer the same thing: the image
of the living sunlit bird flashing past him is in his mind and
creates a kind of illusion when he looks at his feathered mummy,
but the lustre is not visible to others.

It is because of the commonness of this delusion that stuffed
kingfishers, and other brilliant species, are to be seen in the
parlours of tens of thousands of cottages all over the land. Nor is it
only those who live in cottages that make this mistake; those who care
to look for it will find that it exists in some degree in most
minds--the curious delusion that the lustre which we see and admire is
in the case, the coil, the substance which may be grasped, and not in
the spirit of life which is within and the atmosphere and
miracle-working sunlight which are without.

To return to my own taste and feelings, since in the present chapter I
must be allowed to write on Man (myself to wit) and Birds, the other
chapters being occupied with the subject of Birds and Man. It has
always, or since I can remember, been my ambition and principal
delight to see and hear every bird at its best. This is here a
comparative term, and simply means an unusually attractive aspect of
the bird, or a very much better than the ordinary one. This may result
from a fortunate conjunction of circumstances, or may be due to a
peculiar harmony between the creature and its surroundings; or in some
instances, as in that given above of the Dartford warbler, to a rare
effect of the sun. In still other cases, motions and antics, rarely
seen, singularly graceful, or even grotesque, may give the best
impression. After one such impression has been received, another
equally excellent may follow at a later date: in that case the second
impression does not obliterate, or is not superimposed upon the former
one; both remain as permanent possessions of the mind, and we may thus
have several mental pictures of the same species.

It is the same with all minds with regard to the objects and scenes
which happen to be of special interest. The following illustration
will serve to make the matter clearer to readers who are not
accustomed to pay attention to their own mental processes. When any
common object, such as a chair, or spade, or apple, is thought of or
spoken of, an image of a picture of it instantly comes before the
mind's eye; not of a particular spade or apple, but of a type
representing the object which exists in the mind ready for use on all
occasions. With the question of the origin of this type, this spade or
apple of the mind, we need not concern ourselves here. If the object
thought or spoken of be an animal--a horse let us say, the image seen
in the mind will in most cases be as in the foregoing case a type
existing in the mind and not of an individual. But if a person is
keenly interested in horses generally, and is a rider and has owned
and loved many horses, the image of some particular one which he has
known or has looked at with appreciative eyes will come to mind; and
he will also be able to call up the images of dozens or of scores of
horses he has known or seen in the same way. If on the other hand we
think of a rat, we see not any individual but a type, because we have
no interest in or no special feeling with regard to such a creature,
and all the successive images we receive of it become merged in
one--the type which already existed in the mind and was probably
formed very early in life. With the dog for subject the case is
different: dogs are more with us--we know them intimately and have
perhaps regarded many individuals with affection; hence the image that
rises in the mind is as a rule of some dog we have known.

The important point to be noted is, that while each and everything we
see registers an impression in the brain, and may be recalled several
minutes, or hours, or even days afterwards, the only permanent
impressions are of the sights which we have viewed emotionally. We may
remember that we have seen a thousand things in which at some later
period an interest has been born in the mind, when it would be greatly
to our pleasure and even profit to recover their images, and we strive
and ransack our brains to do so, but all in vain: they have been lost
for ever because we happened not to be interested in the originals,
but viewed them with indifference, or unemotionally.

With regard to birds, I see them mentally in two ways: each species
which I have known and observed in its wild state has its type in the
mind--an image which I invariably see when I think of the species;
and, in addition, one or two or several, in some cases as many as
fifty, images of the same species of bird as it appeared at some
exceptionally favourable moment and was viewed with peculiar interest
and pleasure.

Of hundreds of such enduring images of our commonest species I will
here describe one before concluding with this part of the subject.

The long-tailed or bottle-tit is one of the most delicately pretty of
our small woodland birds, and among my treasures, in my invisible and
intangible album, there were several pictures of him which I had
thought unsurpassable, until on a day two years ago when a new and
better one was garnered. I was walking a few miles from Bath by the
Avon where it is not more than thirty or forty yards wide, on a cold,
windy, very bright day in February. The opposite bank was lined with
bushes growing close to the water, the roots and lower trunks of many
of them being submerged, as the river was very full; and behind this
low growth the ground rose abruptly, forming a long green hill crowned
with tall beeches. I stopped to admire one of the bushes across the
stream, and I wish I could now say what its species was: it was low
with widespread branches close to the surface of the water, and its
leafless twigs were adorned with catkins resembling those of the black
poplar, as long as a man's little finger, of a rich dark-red or maroon
colour. A party of about a dozen long-tailed tits were travelling, or
drifting, in their usual desultory way, through the line of bushes
towards this point, and in due time they arrived, one by one, at the
bush I was watching, and finding it sheltered from the wind they
elected to remain at that spot. For a space of fifteen minutes I
looked on with delight, rejoicing at the rare chance which had brought
that exquisite bird- and plant-scene before me. The long deep-red
pendent catkins and the little pale birdlings among them in their grey
and rose-coloured plumage, with long graceful tails and minute round,
parroty heads; some quietly perched just above the water, others
moving about here and there, occasionally suspending themselves back
downwards from the slender terminal twigs--the whole mirrored below.
That magical effect of water and sunlight gave to the scene a somewhat
fairy-like, an almost illusory, character.

Such scenes live in their loveliness only for him who has seen and
harvested them: they cannot be pictured forth to another by words, nor
with the painter's brush, though it be charged with _tintas
orientales_; least of all by photography, which brings all things down
to one flat, monotonous, colourless shadow of things, weary to look
at.

From sights we pass to the consideration of sounds, and it is
unfortunate that the two subjects have to be treated consecutively
instead of together, since with birds they are more intimately joined
than in any other order of beings; and in images of bird life at its
best they sometimes cannot be dissociated;--the aërial form of the
creature, its harmonious, delicate tints, and its grace of motion; and
the voice, which, loud or low, is aërial too, in harmony with the
form.

We know that as with sights so it is with sounds: those to which we
listen attentively, appreciatively, or in any way emotionally, live in
the mind, to be recalled and reheard at will. There is no doubt that
in a large majority of persons this retentive power is far less strong
with regard to sounds than sights, but we are all supposed to have it
in some degree. So far, I have met with but one person, a lady, who is
without it: sounds, in her case, do not register an impression in the
brain, so that with regard to this sense she is in the condition of
civilised man generally with regard to smells. I say of civilised man,
being convinced that this power has become obsolete in us, although it
appears to exist in savages and in the lower animals. The most common
sounds, natural or artificial, the most familiar bird-notes, the
lowing of a cow, the voices of her nearest and dearest friends, and
simplest melodies sung or played, cannot be reproduced in her brain:
she remembers them as agreeable sounds, just as we all remember that
certain flowers and herbs have agreeable odours; but she does not
_hear_ them. Probably there are not many persons in the same case; but
in such matters it is hard to know what the real condition of
another's mind may be. Our acquaintances refuse to analyse or turn
themselves inside out merely to gratify a curiosity which they may
think idle. In some cases they perhaps have a kind of superstition
about such things: the secret processes of _their_ mind are their
secret, or "business," and, like the secret and _real_ name of a
person among some savage tribes, not to be revealed but at the risk of
giving to another a mysterious power over their lives and fortunes.
Even worse than the reticent, the superstitious, and the simply
unintelligent, is the highly imaginative person who is only too ready
to answer all inquiries, who catches at what you say in explanation,
divines what you want, and instantly (and unconsciously) invents
something to tell you.

But we may, I think, take it for granted that the faculty of retaining
sounds is as universal as that of retaining sights, although, speaking
generally, the impressions of sounds are less perfect and lasting than
those which relate to the higher, more intellectual sense of vision;
also that this power varies greatly in different persons. Furthermore,
we see in the case of musical composers, and probably of most
musicians who are devoted to their art, that this faculty is capable
of being trained and developed to an extraordinary degree of
efficiency. The composer sitting pen in hand to write his score in his
silent room hears the voices and the various instruments, the solos
and orchestral sounds, which are in his thoughts. It is true that he
is a creator, and listens mentally to compositions that have never
been previously heard; but he cannot imagine, or cannot _hear_
mentally, any note or combination of notes which he has never heard
with his physical sense. In creating he selects from the infinite
variety of sounds whose images exist in his mind, and, rearranging
them, produces new effects.

The difference in the brains, with regard to their sound-storing
power, of the accomplished musician and the ordinary person who does
not know one tune from another and has but fleeting impressions of
sounds in general, is no doubt enormous; probably it is as great as
that which exists in the logical faculty between a professor of that
science in one of the Universities and a native of the Andaman Islands
or of Tierra del Fuego. It is, we see, a question of training: any
person with a normal brain who is accustomed to listen appreciatively
to certain sounds, natural or artificial, must store his mind with the
images of such sounds. And the open-air naturalist, who is keenly
interested in the language of birds, and has listened with delight to
a great variety of species, should be as rich in such impressions as
the musician is with regard to musical sounds. Unconsciously he has
all his life been training the faculty.

With regard to the durability of the images, it may be thought by some
that, speaking of birds, only those which are revived and restored, so
to speak, from time to time by fresh sense-impressions remain
permanently distinct. That would naturally be the first conclusion
most persons would arrive at, considering that the sound-images which
exist in their minds are of the species found in their own country,
which they are able to hear occasionally, even if at very long
intervals in some cases. My own experience proves that it is not so;
that a man may cut himself off from the bird life he knows, to make
his home in another region of the globe thousands of miles away, and
after a period exceeding a quarter of a century, during which he has
become intimate with a wholly different bird life, to find that the
old sound-images, which have never been refreshed with new
sense-impressions, are as distinct as they ever were, and seem indeed
imperishable.

I confess that, when I think of it, I am astonished myself at such an
experience, and to some it must seem almost incredible. It will be
said, perhaps, that in the infinite variety of bird-sounds heard
anywhere there must be innumerable notes which closely resemble, or
are similar to, those of other species in other lands, and, although
heard in a different order, the old images of cries and calls and
songs are thus indirectly refreshed and kept alive. I do not think
that has been any real help to me. Thus, I think of some species which
has not been thought of for years, and its language comes back at call
to my mind. I listen mentally to its various notes, and there is not
one in the least like the notes of any British species. These images
have therefore never received refreshment. Again, where there is a
resemblance, as in the trisyllabic cry of the common sandpiper and
another species, I listen mentally to one, then to the other, heard so
long ago, and hear both distinctly, and comparing the two, find a
considerable difference, one being a thinner, shriller, and less
musical sound than the other. Still again, in the case of the
blackbird, which has a considerable variety in its language, there is
one little chirp familiar to every one--a small round drop of sound of
a musical, bell-like character. Now it happens that one of the true
thrushes of South America, a bird resembling our song-thrush, has an
almost identical bell-like chirp, and so far as that small drop of
sound is concerned the old image may be refreshed by new
sense-impressions. Or I might even say that the original image has
been covered by the later one, as in the case of the laughter-like
cries of the Dominican and the black-backed gulls. But with regard to
the thrushes, excepting that small drop of sound, the language of the
two species is utterly different. Each has a melody perfect of its
kind: the song of the foreign bird is not fluty nor mellow nor placid
like that of the blackbird, but has in a high degree that quality of
plaintiveness and gladness commingled which we admire in some fresh
and very beautiful human voices, like that described in Lowell's lines
"To Perdita Singing":--

   It hath caught a touch of sadness,
       Yet it is not sad;
   It hath tones of clearest gladness,
       Yet it is not glad.

Again, that foreign song is composed of many notes, and is poured out
in a stream, as a skylark sings; and it is also singular on account of
the contrast between these notes which suggest human feeling and a
purely metallic, bell-like sound, which, coming in at intervals, has
the effect of the triangle in a band of wind instruments. The image of
this beautiful song is as distinct in my mind as that of the blackbird
which I heard every day last summer from every green place.

Doubtless there are some and perhaps a good many ornithologists among
us who have been abroad to observe the bird life of distant countries,
and who when at home find that the sound-impressions they have
received are not persistent, or, if not wholly lost, that they grow
faint and indistinct, and become increasingly difficult to recall.
They can no longer _listen_ to those over-sea notes and songs as they
can, mentally, to the cuckoo's call in spring, the wood-owl's hoot, to
the song of the skylark and of the tree-pipit, the reeling of the
night-jar and the startling scream of the woodland jay, the deep
human-like tones of the raven, the inflected wild cry of the curlew,
and the beautiful wild whistle of the widgeon, heard in the silence of
the night on some lonely mere.

The reason is that these, and numberless more, are the sounds of the
bird life of their own home and country; the living voices to which
they listened when they were young and the senses keener than now, and
their enthusiasm greater; they were in fact heard with an emotion
which the foreign species never inspired in them, and thus heard, the
images of the sounds were made imperishable.

In my case the foreign were the home birds, and on that account alone
more to me than all others; yet I escaped that prejudice which the
British naturalist is never wholly without--the notion that the home
bird is, intrinsically, better worth listening to than the bird
abroad. Finally, on coming to this country, I could not listen to the
birds coldly, as an English naturalist would to those of, let us say,
Queensland, or Burma, or Canada, or Patagonia, but with an intense
interest; for these were the birds which my forbears had known and
listened to all their lives long; and my imagination was fired by all
that had been said of their charm, not indeed by frigid
ornithologists, but by a long succession of great poets, from Chaucer
down to those of our own time. Hearing them thus emotionally their
notes became permanently impressed on my mind, and I found myself the
happy possessor of a large number of sound-images representing the
bird language of two widely separated regions.

To return to the main point--the durability of the impressions both of
sight and sound.

In order to get a more satisfactory idea of the number and comparative
strength or vividness of the images of twenty-six years ago remaining
to me after so long a time than I could by merely thinking about the
subject, I drew up a list of the species of birds observed by me in
the two adjoining districts of La Plata and Patagonia. Against the
name of each species the surviving sight- and sound-impressions were
set down; but on going over this first list and analysis, fresh
details came to mind, and some images which had become dimmed all at
once grew bright again, and to bring these in, the work had to be
redone; then it was put away and the subject left for a few days to
the "subliminal consciousness," after which I took it up once more and
rewrote it all--list and analysis; and I think it now gives a fairly
accurate account of the state of these old impressions as they exist
in memory.

This has not been done solely for my own gratification. I confess to a
very strong feeling of curiosity as to the mental experience on this
point of other field naturalists; and as these, or some of them, may
have the same wish to look into their neighbours' minds that I have,
it may be that the example given here will be followed.

My list comprises 226 species--a large number to remember when we
consider that it exceeds by about 16 or 18 the number of British
species; that is to say, those which may truly be described as
belonging to these islands, without including the waifs and strays and
rare visitants which by a fiction are described as British birds. Of
the 226, the sight-impressions of 10 have become indistinct, and one
has been completely forgotten. The sight of a specimen might perhaps
revive an image of this lost one as it was seen, a living wild bird;
but I do not know. This leaves 215, every one of which I can mentally
see as distinctly as I see in my mind the common species I am
accustomed to look at every day in England--thrush, starling, robin,
etc.

A different story has to be told with regard to the language. To begin
with, there are no fewer than 34 species of which no sound-impressions
were received. These include the habitually silent kinds--the stork,
which rattles its beak but makes no vocal sound, the painted snipe,
the wood ibis, and a few more; species which were rarely seen and
emitted no sound--condor, Muscovy duck, harpy eagle, and others;
species which were known only as winter visitants, or seen on
migration, and which at such seasons were invariably silent.

Thus, those which were heard number 192. Of these the language of 7
species has been completely forgotten, and of 31 the sound-impressions
have now become indistinct in varying degrees. Deducting those whose
notes have become silent and are not clearly heard in the mind, there
remain 154 species which are distinctly remembered. That is to say,
when I think of them and their language, the cries, calls, songs, and
other sounds are reproduced in the mind.

Studying the list, in which the species are ranged in order according
to their affinities, it is easy to see why the language of some,
although not many, has been lost or has become more or less
indistinct. In some cases it is because there was nothing distinctive
or in any way attractive in the notes; in other cases because the
images have been covered and obliterated by others--the stronger
images of closely-allied species. In the two American families of
tyrant-birds and woodhewers, neither of which are songsters, there is
in some of the closely-related species a remarkable family resemblance
in their voices. Listening to their various cries and calls, the
trained ear of the ornithologist can easily distinguish them and
identify the species; but after years the image of the more powerful
or the better voices of, say, two or three species in a group of four
or five absorb and overcome the others. I cannot find a similar case
among British species to illustrate this point, unless it be that of
the meadow- and rock-pipit. Strongly as the mind is impressed by the
measured tinkling notes of these two songs, emitted as the birds
descend to earth, it is not probable that any person who had not heard
them for a number of years would be able to distinguish or keep them
separate in his mind--to hear them in their images as two distinct
songs.

In the case of the good singers in that distant region, I find the
voices continue remarkably distinct, and as an example will give the
two melodious families of the finches and the troupials (Icteridae),
the last an American family, related to the finches, but starling-like
in appearance, many of them brilliantly coloured. Of the first I am
acquainted with 12 and of the second with 14 species.

Here then are 26 highly vocal species, of which the songs, calls,
chirps, and various other notes, are distinctly remembered in 23. Of
the other three one was silent--a small rare migratory finch
resembling the bearded-tit in its reed-loving habits, its long tail
and slender shape, and partly too in its colouring. I listened in vain
for this bird's singing notes. Of the remaining two one is a finch,
the other a troupial; the first a pretty bird, in appearance a small
hawfinch with its whole plumage a lovely glaucous blue; a poor singer
with a low rambling song: the second a bird of the size of a starling,
coloured like a golden oriole, but more brilliant; and this one has a
short impetuous song composed of mixed guttural and clear notes.

Why is this rather peculiar song, of a species which on account of its
colouring and pleasing social habits strongly impresses the mind, less
distinct in memory than the songs of other troupials? I believe it is
because it is a rare thing to hear a single song. They perch in a tree
in company, like birds of paradise, and no sooner does one open his
beak than all burst out together, and their singing strikes on the
sense in a rising and falling tempest of confused sound. But it may be
added that though these two songs are marked "indistinct" in the list,
they are not very indistinct, and become less so when I listen
mentally with closed eyes.

In conclusion, it is worthy of remark that the good voices, as to
quality, and the powerful ones, are not more enduring in their images
than those which were listened to appreciatively for other reasons.
Voices which have the quality of ventriloquism, or are in any way
mysterious, or are suggestive of human tones, are extremely
persistent; and such voices are found in owls, pigeons, snipe, rails,
grebes, night-jars, tinamous, rheas, and in some passerine birds.
Again, the swallows are not remarkable as singers compared with
thrushes, finches, and other melodists; but on account of their
intrinsic charm and beauty, their interesting habits, and the
sentiment they inspire, we listen to them emotionally; and I
accordingly find that the language of the five species of swallows I
was formerly accustomed to see and hear continues as distinct in my
mind as that of the chimney swallow, which I listen to every summer in
England.

       *       *       *       *       *

I had meant in this chapter to give three or four or half a dozen
instances of birds seen at their best, instead of the one I have
given--that of the long-tailed tit; and as many more images in which a
rare, unforgettable effect was produced by melody. For as with sights
so it is with sounds: for these too there are "special moments," which
have "special grace." But this chapter is already longer than it was
ever meant to be, and something on another subject yet remains to be
said.

The question is sometimes asked, What is the charm which you find, or
say you find, in nature? Is it real, or do these words so often
repeated have a merely conventional meaning, like so many other words
and phrases which men use with regard to other things? Birds, for
instance: apart from the interest which the ornithologists must take
in his subject, what substantial happiness can be got out of these shy
creatures, mostly small and not too well seen, that fly from us when
approached, and utter sounds which at their best are so poor, so thin,
so trivial, compared with our soul-stirring human music?

That, briefly, is the indoor view of the subject--the view of those
who, to begin with, were perhaps town-born and town-bred; who have
existed amid conditions, occupied with work and pleasures, the reflex
effect of which, taken altogether and in the long-run, is to dim and
even deaden some of the brain's many faculties, and chiefly this best
faculty of preserving impressions of nature for long years or to the
end of life in all their original freshness.

Some five or six years ago I heard a speech about birds delivered by
Sir Edward Grey, in which he said that the love and appreciation and
study of birds was something fresher and brighter than the second-hand
interests and conventional amusements in which so many in this day try
to live; that the pleasure of seeing and listening to them was purer
and more lasting than any pleasures of excitement, and, in the
long-run, "happier than personal success." That was a saying to stick
in the mind, and it is probable that some who listened failed to
understand. Let us imagine that in addition to this miraculous faculty
of the brain of storing innumerable brilliant images of things seen
and heard, to be reproduced at call to the inner sense, there existed
in a few gifted persons a correlated faculty by means of which these
treasured images could be thrown at will into the mind of another; let
us further imagine that some one in the audience who had wondered at
that saying, finding it both dark and hard, had asked me to explain
it; and that in response I had shown him, as by a swift succession of
lightning flashes a score or a hundred images of birds at their
best--the unimaginable loveliness, the sunlit colour, the grace of
form and of motion, and the melody--how great the effect of even that
brief glance into a new unknown world would have been! And if I had
then said: All that you have seen--the pictures in one small room in a
house of many rooms--is not after all the main thing; _that_ it would
be idle to speak of, since you cannot know what you do not feel,
though it should be told you many times; this only can be told--the
enduring images are but an incidental result of a feeling which
existed already; they were never looked for, and are a free gift from
nature to her worshipper;--if I had said this to him, the words of the
speech which has seemed almost sheer insanity a little while before
would have acquired a meaning and an appearance of truth.

       *       *       *       *       *

It has curiously happened that while writing these concluding
sentences some old long-forgotten lines which I read in my youth came
suddenly into my mind, as if some person sitting invisible at my side
and thinking them apposite to the subject had whispered them into my
ear. They are lines addressed to the Merrimac River by an American
poet--whether a major or minor I do not know, having forgotten his
name. In one stanza he mentions the fact that "young Brissot" looked
upon this stream in its bright flow--

   And bore its image o'er the deep
       To soothe a martyr's sadness,
   And fresco in his troubled sleep
       His prison walls with gladness.

Brissot is not generally looked upon as a "martyr" on this side of the
Atlantic, nor was he allowed to enjoy his "troubled sleep" too long
after his fellow-citizens (especially the great and sea-green
Incorruptible) had begun in their fraternal fashion to thirst for his
blood; but we can easily believe that during those dark days in the
Bastille the image and vision of the beautiful river thousands of
miles away was more to him than all his varied stores of knowledge,
all his schemes for the benefit of suffering humanity, and perhaps
even a better consolation than his philosophy.

It is indeed this "gladness" of old sunshine stored within us--if we
have had the habit of seeing beauty everywhere and of viewing all
beautiful things with appreciation--this incalculable wealth of images
of vanished scenes, which is one of our best and dearest possessions,
and a joy for ever.

"What asketh man to have?" cried Chaucer, and goes on to say in
bitterest words that "now with his love" he must soon lie in "the
coldë grave--alone, withouten any companie."

What he asketh to have, I suppose, is a blue diamond--some
unattainable good; and in the meantime, just to go on with, certain
pleasant things which perish in the using.

These same pleasant things are not to be despised, but they leave
nothing for the mind in hungry days to feed upon, and can be of no
comfort to one who is shut up within himself by age and bodily
infirmities and the decay of the senses; on the contrary, the
recollection of them at such times, as has been said, can but serve to
make a present misery more poignantly felt.

It was the nobly expressed consolation of an American poet, now dead,
when standing in the summer sunshine amid a fine prospect of woods and
hills, to think, when he remembered the darkness of decay and the
grave, that he had beheld in nature, though but for a moment,

   The brightness of the skirts of God.



CHAPTER II

BIRDS AND MAN


To most of our wild birds man must appear as a being eccentric and
contradictory in his actions. By turns he is hostile, indifferent,
friendly towards them, so that they never quite know what to expect.
Take the case of a blackbird who has gradually acquired trustful
habits, and builds its nest in the garden or shrubbery in sight of the
friends that have fed it in frosty weather; so little does it fear
that it allows them to come a dozen times a day, put the branches
aside and look upon it, and even stroke its back as it sits on its
eggs. By and by a neighbour's egg-hunting boy creeps in, discovers the
nest, and pulls it down. The bird finds itself betrayed by its
confidence; had it suspected the boy's evil intentions it would have
made an outcry at his approach, as at the appearance of a cat, and the
nest would perhaps have been saved. The result of such an accident
would probably be the unsettling of an acquired habit, the return to
the usual suspicious attitude.

Birds are able sometimes to discriminate between protectors and
persecutors, but seldom very well I should imagine; they do not view
the face only, but the whole form, and our frequent change of dress
must make it difficult for them to distinguish the individuals they
know and trust from strangers. Even a dog is occasionally at fault
when his master, last seen in black and grey suit, reappears in straw
hat and flannels.

Nevertheless, if birds once come to know those who habitually protect
them and form a trustful habit, this will not be abandoned on account
of a little rough treatment on occasions. A lady at Worthing told me
of her blackbirds breeding in her garden that they refused to be kept
from the strawberries when she netted the ripening fruit. One or more
of the birds would always manage to get under the net; and when she
would capture the robber and carry him, screaming, struggling and
pecking at her fingers, to the end of the garden and release him, he
would immediately follow her back to the bed and set himself to get at
the fruit again.

In a bird's relations with other mammals there is no room for doubt or
confusion; each consistently acts after its kind; once hostile, always
hostile; and if once seen to be harmless, then to be trusted for ever.
The fox must always be feared and detested; his disposition, like his
sharp nose and red coat, is unchangeable; so, too, with the cat,
stoat, weasel, etc. On the other hand, in the presence of herbivorous
mammals, birds show no sign of suspicion; they know that all these
various creatures are absolutely harmless, from the big
formidable-looking bull and roaring stag, to the mild-eyed, timorous
hare and rabbit. It is common to see wagtails and other species
attending cattle in the pastures, and keeping close to their noses, on
the look-out for the small insects driven from hiding in the grass.
Daws and starlings search the backs of cattle and sheep for ticks and
other parasites, and it is plain that their visits are welcome. Here a
joint interest unites bird and beast; it is the nearest approach to
symbiosis among the higher vertebrates of this country, but is far
less advanced than the partnership which exists between the rhinoceros
bird and the rhinoceros or buffalo, and between the spur-winged plover
and crocodile in Africa.

One day I was walking by a meadow, adjoining the Bishop's palace at
Wells, where several cows were grazing, and noticed a little beyond
them a number of rooks and starlings scattered about. Presently a
flock of about forty of the cathedral jackdaws flew over me and
slanted down to join the other birds, when all at once two daws
dropped out of the flock on to the back of the cow standing nearest to
me. Immediately five more daws followed, and the crowd of seven birds
began eagerly pecking at the animal's hide. But there was not room
enough for them to move freely; they pushed and struggled for a
footing, throwing their wings out to keep their balance, looking like
a number of hungry vultures fighting for places on a carcase; and soon
two of the seven were thrown off and flew away. The remaining five,
although much straitened for room, continued for some time scrambling
over the cow's back, busy with their beaks and apparently very much
excited over the treasure they had discovered. It was amusing to see
how the cow took their visit; sinking her body as if about to lie down
and broadening her back, and dropping her head until her nose touched
the ground, she stood perfectly motionless, her tail stuck out behind
like a pump-handle. At length the daws finished their feeding and
quarrelling and flew away; but for some minutes the cow remained
immovable in the same attitude, as if the rare and delightful
sensation of so many beaks prodding and so many sharp claws scratching
her hide had not yet worn off.

Deer, too, like cows, are very grateful to the daw for its services.
In Savernake Forest I once witnessed a very pretty little scene. I
noticed a hind lying down by herself in a grassy hollow, and as I
passed her at a distance of about fifty yards it struck me as singular
that she kept her head so low down that I could only see the top of it
on a level with her back. Walking round to get a better sight, I saw a
jackdaw standing on the turf before her, very busily pecking at her
face. With my glass I was able to watch his movements very closely; he
pecked round her eyes, then her nostrils, her throat, and in fact
every part of her face; and just as a man when being shaved turns his
face this way and that under the gentle guiding touch of the barber's
fingers, and lifts up his chin to allow the razor to pass beneath it,
so did the hind raise and lower and turn her face about to enable the
bird to examine and reach every part with his bill. Finally the daw
left the face, and, moving round, jumped on to the deer's shoulders
and began a minute search in that part; having finished this he jumped
on to the head and pecked at the forehead and round the bases of the
ears. The pecking done, he remained for some seconds sitting perfectly
still, looking very pretty with the graceful red head for a stand, the
hind's long ears thrust out on either side of him. From his living
perch he sprang into the air and flew away, going close to the
surface; then slowly the deer raised her head and gazed after her
black friend--gratefully, and regretting his departure, I could not
but think.

Some birds when breeding exhibit great anxiety at the approach of any
animal to the nest; but even when most excited they behave very
differently towards herbivorous mammals and those which they know to
be at all times the enemies of their kind. The nest of a
ground-breeding species may be endangered by the proximity of a goat,
sheep, deer, or any grazing animal, but the birds do not winnow the
air above it, scream, make threatening dashes at its head, and try to
lead it away as they would do in the case of a dog or fox. When small
birds dash at and violently attack large animals and man in defence of
their nest, even though the nest may not have been touched, the action
appears to be purely instinctive and involuntary, almost unconscious,
in fact. Acts of this kind are more often seen in humming-birds than
in birds of other families; and humming-birds do not appear to
discriminate between rapacious and herbivorous mammals. When they see
a large animal moving about they fly close to and examine it for a few
moments, then dart away; if it comes too near the nest they will
attack it, or threaten an attack. When examining their nests I have
had humming-birds dash into my face. The action is similar to that of
a stingless, solitary carpenter bee, common in La Plata: a round burly
insect with a shining steel-blue body: when the tree or bush in which
this bee has its nest is approached by a man it darts about in an
eccentric manner, humming loudly, and at intervals remains suspended
motionless for ten or fifteen seconds at a height of seven or eight
yards above his head; suddenly it dashes quick as lightning into his
face, inflicting a sharp blow. The bee falls, as if stunned, a space
of a couple of feet, then rises again to repeat the action.

There is certainly a wide difference between so simple an instinctive
action as this, which cannot be regarded as intelligent or conscious,
and the actions of most birds in the presence of danger to their eggs
or young. In species that breed on the ground in open situations the
dangers to which bird and nest are exposed are of different kinds,
and, leaving out the case of that anomalous creature, man, we see that
as a rule the bird's judgment is not at fault. In one case it is
necessary that he should guard himself while trying to save his nest;
in another case the danger is to the nest only, and he then shows that
he has no fear for himself. The most striking instance I have met
with, bearing on this last point, relates to the action of a
spur-winged lapwing observed on the Pampas. The bird's loud excited
cries attracted my attention; a sheep was lying down with its nose
directly over the nest, containing three eggs, and the plover was
trying to make it get up and go away. It was a hot day and the sheep
refused to stir; possibly the fanning of the bird's wings was grateful
to her. After beating the sheep's face for some time it began pecking
sharply at the nose; then the sheep raised her head, but soon grew
tired of holding it up, and no sooner was it lowered than the blows
and peckings began again. Again the head was raised, and lowered again
with the same result, and this continued for about twelve or fourteen
minutes, until the annoyance became intolerable; then the sheep raised
her head and refused to lower it any more, and in that very
uncomfortable position, with her nose high in the air, she appeared
determined to stay. In vain the lapwing waited, and at last began to
make little jumps at the face. The nose was out of reach, but by and
by, in one of its jumps, it caught the sheep's ear in its beak and
remained hanging with drooping wings and dangling legs. The sheep
shook her head several times and at last shook the bird off; but no
sooner was it down than it jumped up and caught the ear again; then at
last the sheep, fairly beaten, struggled up to her feet, throwing the
bird off, and lazily walked away, shaking her head repeatedly.

How great the confidence of the plover must have been to allow it to
act in such a manner!

This perfect confidence which birds have in the mammals they have been
taught by experience and tradition to regard as harmless must be
familiar to any one who has observed partridges associating with
rabbits. The manners of the rabbit, one would imagine, must be
exceedingly "upsetting" to birds of so timorous a disposition. He has
a way, after a quiet interval, of leaping into activity with startling
suddenness, darting violently away as if scared out of his senses; but
his eccentric movements do not in the least alarm his feathered
companions. One evening early in the month of March I witnessed an
amusing scene near Ockley, in Surrey. I was walking towards the
village about half an hour after sunset, when, hearing the loud call
of a partridge, I turned my eyes in the direction of the sound and saw
five birds on a slight eminence nearly in the centre of a small green
field, surrounded by a low thorn hedge. They had come to that spot to
roost; the calling bird was standing erect, and for some time he
continued to call at intervals after the others had settled down at a
distance of one or two yards apart. All at once, while I stood
watching the birds there was a rustling sound in the hedge, and out of
it burst two buck rabbits engaged in a frantic running fight. For some
time they kept near the hedge, but fighting rabbits seldom continue
long on one spot; they are incessantly on the move, although their
movements are chiefly round and round now one way--flight and
pursuit--then, like lightning, the foremost rabbit doubles back and
there is a collision, bitings, and rolling over and over together, and
in an instant they are up again, wide apart, racing like mad.
Gradually they went farther and farther from the hedge; and at length
chance took them to the very spot on which the partridges had settled,
and there for three or four minutes the duel went on. But the birds
refused to be turned out of their quarters. The bird that had called
still remained standing, expectant, with raised head, as if watching
for the appearance of some loiterer, while the others all kept their
places. Their quietude in the midst of that whirlwind of battle was
wonderful to see. Their only movement was when one of the birds was in
a direct line with a flying rabbit, when, if it stayed still, in
another moment it would be struck and perhaps killed by the shock;
then it would leap a few inches aside and immediately settle down
again. In this way every one of the birds had been forced to move
several times before the battle passed on towards the opposite side of
the field and left the covey in peace.

Social animals, Herbert Spencer truly says, "take pleasure in the
consciousness of one another's company;" but he appears to limit the
feeling to those of the same herd, or flock, or species. Speaking of
the mental processes of the cow, he tells us just how that large
mammal is impressed by the sight of birds that come near it and pass
across its field of vision; they are regarded in a vague way as mere
shadows, or shadowy objects, flitting or blown about hither and
thither over the grass or through the air. He didn't know a cow's
mind. My conviction is that all animals distinctly see in those of
other species, living, sentient, intelligent beings like themselves;
and that, when birds and mammals meet together, they take pleasure in
the consciousness of one another's presence, in spite of the enormous
difference in size, voice, habits, etc. I believe that this sympathy
exists and is just as strong between a cow and its small volatile
companion, the wagtail, as between a bird and mammal that more nearly
resemble each other in size; for instance, the partridge, or pheasant,
and rabbit.

The only bird with us that appears to have some such feeling of
pleasure in the company of man is the robin. It is not universal, not
even very common, and Macgillivray, in speaking of the confidence in
men of that bird during severe weather, very truly says, "In ordinary
times he is not perfectly disposed to trust in man." Any person can
prove this for himself by going into a garden or shrubbery and
approaching a robin. We see, too, that the bird shows intense anxiety
when its nest is approached by a man; this point, however, need not be
made much of, since all visitors, even its best friends, are unwelcome
to the breeding bird. Still, there is no doubt that the robin is less
distrustful of man than other species, but not surely because this
bird is regarded by most persons with kindly feelings. The curious
point is that the young birds find something in man to attract them.
This is usually seen at the end of summer, when the old birds have
gone into hiding, and it is then surprising to find how many of the
young robins left in possession of the ground appear to take pleasure
in the company of human beings. Often before a person has been many
minutes in a garden strolling about, he will discover that the quiet
little spotted bird is with him, hopping and flying from twig to twig
and occasionally alighting on the ground, keeping company with him,
sometimes sitting quite still a yard from his hand. The gardener is
usually attended by a friendly robin, and when he turns up the soil
the bird will come down close to his feet to pick up the small grubs
and worms. Is it not probable that the tameness of the tame young
robin so frequently met with is, like that of the robin who keeps
company with the gardener or woodman, an acquired habit; that the
young bird has made the discovery that when a person is moving about
among the plants, picking fruit perhaps, lurking insects are disturbed
at the roots and small spiders and caterpillars shaken from the
leaves? We are to the robin what the cow is to the wagtail and the
sheep to the starling--a food finder.

Among the birds of the homestead the swallow is another somewhat
exceptional species in his way of regarding man. He is too much a
creature of the air to take any pleasure in the company of heavy
animals, bound to earth; the distance is too great for sympathy to
exist. When we consider how closely he is bound and how much he is to
us, it is hard to believe that he is wholly unconscious of our
benefits, that when he returns in spring, overflowing with gladness,
to twitter his delightful airy music round the house, he is not
singing to us, glad to see us again after a long absence, to be once
more our welcome guest as in past years. But so it is. When there were
no houses in the land he built his nest in some rocky cavern, where a
she-wolf had her lair, and his life and music were just as joyous as
they are now, and the wolf suckling her cubs on the stony floor
beneath was nothing to him. But if by chance she climbed a little way
up or put her nose too near his nest, his lively twittering quickly
changed to shrill cries of alarm and anger. And we are no more than
the vanished wolf to the swallow, and so long as we refrain from
peeping into his nest and handling his eggs or young, he does not know
us, and is hardly conscious of our existence. All the social feelings
and sympathy of the swallow are for creatures as aërial and
swift-winged as itself--its playmates in the wide fields of air.

Swallows hawking after flies in a village street, where people are
walking about, is a familiar sight, Swifts are just as confident. A
short time ago, while standing in the churchyard at Farnham, in
Surrey, watching a bunch of ten or twelve swifts racing through the
air, I noticed that on each return to the church they followed the
same line, doubling round the tower on the same side, then sweeping
down close to the surface, and mounting again. Going to the spot I put
myself directly in their way--on their race-course as it were, at that
point where it touched the earth; but they did not on that account
vary their route; each time they came back they streamed screaming
past my head so near as almost to brush my face with their wings. But
I was never more struck by the unconcern at the presence of man shown
by these birds--swallows, martins, and swifts--as on one occasion at
Frensham, when the birds were very numerous. This was in the month of
May, about five weeks after I had witnessed the fight between two
rabbits, and the wonderful composure exhibited by a covey of
partridges through it all. It was on a close hot morning, after a
night of rain, when, walking down to Frensham Great Pond, I saw the
birds hawking about near the water. The may-flies were just out, and
in some mysterious way the news had been swiftly carried all over the
surrounding country. So great was the number of birds that the entire
population of swallows, house- and sand-martins, and swifts, must have
been gathered at that spot from the villages, farms, and sand-banks
for several miles around. At the side of the pond I was approaching
there is a green strip about a hundred and twenty or a hundred and
thirty yards in length and forty or fifty yards wide, and over this
ground from end to end the birds were smoothly and swiftly gliding
backwards and forwards. The whole place seemed alive with them.
Hurrying to the spot I met with a little adventure which it may not be
inapt to relate. Walking on through some scattered furze-bushes,
gazing intently ahead at the swallows, I almost knocked my foot
against a hen pheasant covering her young chicks on the bare ground
beside a dwarf bush. Catching sight of her just in time I started
back; then, with my feet about a yard from the bird, I stood and
regarded her for some time. Not the slightest movement did she make;
she was like a bird carved out of some beautifully variegated and
highly-polished stone, but her bright round eyes had a wonderfully
alert and wild expression. With all her stillness the poor bird must
have been in an agony of terror and suspense, and I wondered how long
she would endure the tension. She stood it for about fifty seconds,
then burst screaming away with such violence that her seven or eight
chicks were flung in all directions to a distance of two or three feet
like little balls of fluff; and going twenty yards away she dropped to
the ground and began beating her wings, calling loudly.

I then walked on, and in three or four minutes was on the green ground
in the thick of the swallows. They were in hundreds, flying at various
heights, but mostly low, so that I looked down on them, and they
certainly formed a curious and beautiful spectacle. So thick were
they, and so straight and rapid their flight, that they formed in
appearance a current, or rather many currents, flowing side by side in
opposite directions; and when viewed with nearly closed eyes the birds
were like black lines on the green surface. They were silent except
for the occasional weak note of the sand-martin; and through it all
they were perfectly regardless of me, whether I stood still or walked
about among them; only when I happened to be directly in the way of a
bird coming towards me he would swerve aside just far enough to avoid
touching me.

In the evening of that very day the behaviour of a number of
gold-crests, disturbed at my presence, surprised and puzzled me not a
little; their action had a peculiar interest just then, as the
encounter with the pheasant, and the sight of the multitude of
swallows and their indifference towards me were still very fresh in
memory. The incident has only an indirect bearing on the subject
discussed here, but I think it is worth relating.

About two miles from Frensham ponds there is a plantation of fir-trees
with a good deal of gorse growing scattered about among the trees; in
walking through this wood on previous occasions I had noticed that
gold-crests were abundant in it. Soon after sunset on the evening in
question I went through this wood, and after going about eighty to a
hundred yards became conscious of a commotion of a novel kind in the
branches above my head--conscious too that it had been going on for
some time, and that absorbed in thought I had not remarked it. A
considerable number of gold-crests were flitting through the branches
and passing from tree to tree, keeping over and near me, all together
uttering their most vehement cries of alarm. I stopped and listened to
the little chorus of shrill squeaking sounds, and watched the birds as
well as I could in the obscurity of the branches, flitting about in
the greatest agitation. It was perfectly clear that I was the cause of
the excitement, as the birds increased in number as long as I stood at
that spot, until there could not have been less than forty or fifty,
and when I again walked on they followed. One expects to be mobbed and
screamed at by gulls, terns, lapwings, and some other species, when
approaching their nesting-places, but a hostile demonstration of this
kind from such minute creatures as gold-crests, usually indifferent to
man, struck me as very unusual and somewhat ridiculous. What, I asked
myself, could be the reason of their sudden alarm, when my previous
visits to the wood had not excited them in the least? I could only
suppose that I had, without knowing it, brushed against a nest, and
the alarm note of the parent birds had excited the others and caused
them to gather near me, and that in the obscure light they had
mistaken me for some rapacious animal. The right explanation (I think
it the right one) was found by chance three months later.

In August I was in Ireland, staying at a country house among the
Wicklow hills. There were several swallows' nests in the stable, one
or two so low that they could be reached by the hand, and the birds
went in and out regardless of the presence of any person. In a few
days the young were out, sitting in rows on the roof of the house or
on a low fence near it, where their parents fed them for a short time.
After these young birds were able to take care of themselves they
still kept about the house, and were joined by more swallows and
martins from the neighbourhood. One bright sunny morning, when not
fewer than two or three score of these birds were flying about the
house, gaily twittering, I went into the garden to get some fruit. All
at once a swallow uttered his loud shrill alarm cry overhead and at
the same time darted down at me, almost grazing my hat, then mounting
up he continued making swoops, screaming all the time. Immediately all
the other swallows and martins came to the spot, joining in the cry,
and continued flying about over my head, but not darting at me like
the first bird. For some moments I was very much astonished at the
attack; then I looked round for the cat--it must be the cat, I
thought. This animal had a habit of hiding among the gooseberry
bushes, and, when I stooped to pick the fruit, springing very suddenly
upon my back. But pussy was nowhere near, and as the swallow continued
to make dashes at me, I thought that there must be something to alarm
it on my head, and at once pulled off my hat and began to examine it.
In a moment the alarm cries ceased and the whole gathering of swallows
dispersed in all directions. There was no doubt that my hat had caused
the excitement; it was of tweed, of an obscure grey colour, striped or
barred with dark brown. Throwing it down on the ground among the
bushes it struck me that its colour and markings were like those of a
grey striped cat. Any one seeing it lying there would, at the first
moment, have mistaken it for a cat lying curled up asleep among the
bushes. Then I remembered that I had been wearing the same delusive,
dangerous-looking round tweed fishing-hat on the occasion of being
mobbed by the gold-crests at Frensham. Of course the illusion could
only have been produced in a bird looking down upon the top of the hat
from above.



CHAPTER III

DAWS IN THE WEST COUNTRY


Daws are more abundant in the west and south-west of England generally
than in any other part of the kingdom; and they abound most in
Somerset, or so it has seemed to me. It is true that the largest
congregations of daws in the entire country are to be seen at
Savernake in Wiltshire, where the ancient hollow beeches and oaks in
the central parts of the forest supply them with all the nesting holes
they require. There is no such wood of old decaying trees in Somerset
to attract them to one spot in such numbers, but the country generally
is singularly favourable to them. It is mainly a pastoral country with
large areas of rich, low grass land, and ranges of high hills, where
there are many rocky precipices such as the daw loves. For very good
reasons he prefers the inland to the sea-cliff as a breeding site. It
is, to begin with, in the midst of his feeding ground, whereas the
sea-wall is a boundary to a feeding ground beyond which the bird
cannot go. Better still, the inland bird has an immense advantage over
the other in travelling to and from his nest in bad weather.
When the wind blows strong from the sea the seaside bird must
perpetually fight against it and win his home by sheer muscular
exertion. The other bird, able to go foraging to this side or that,
according to the way the wind blows, can always have the wind as a
help instead of a hindrance.

Somerset also possesses a long coast-line and some miles of
sea-cliffs, but the colonies of jackdaws found here are small compared
with those of the Mendip range. The inland-cliff breeding daws that
inhabit the valley of the Somerset Axe alone probably greatly
outnumber all the daws in Middlesex, or Surrey, or Essex.

Finally, besides the cliffs and woods, there are the old towns and
villages--small towns and villages with churches that are almost like
cathedrals. No county in England is richer in noble churches, and no
kind of building seems more attractive to the "ecclesiastical daw"
than the great Perpendicular tower of the Glastonbury type, which is
so common here.

Of the old towns which the bird loves and inhabits in numbers, Wells
comes first. If Wells had no birds it would still be a city one could
not but delight in. There are not more than half a dozen towns in all
the country where (if I were compelled to live in towns) life would
not seem something of a burden; and of these, two are in
Somerset--Bath and Wells. Of the former something will be said further
on: Wells has the first place in my affections, and is the one town in
England the sight of which in April and early May, from a neighbouring
hill, has caused me to sigh with pleasure. Its cathedral is assuredly
the loveliest work of man in this land, supremely beautiful, even
without the multitude of daws that make it their house, and may be
seen every day in scores, looking like black doves perched on the
stony heads and hands and shoulders of that great company of angels
and saints, apostles, kings, queens, and bishops, that decorate the
wonderful west front. For in this building--not viewed as in a
photograph or picture, nor through the eye of the mere architect or
archaeologist, who sees the gem but not the setting--nature and man
appear to have worked together more harmoniously than in others.

But it is hard to imagine a birdless Wells. The hills, beautiful with
trees and grass and flowers, come down to it; cattle graze on their
slopes; the peewit has its nest in their stony places, and the kestrel
with quick-beating wings hangs motionless overhead. Nature is round
it, breathing upon and touching it caressingly on every side; flowing
through it like the waters that gave it its name in olden days, that
still gush with noise and foam from the everlasting rock, to send
their crystal currents along the streets. And with nature, in and
around the rustic village-like city, live the birds. The green
woodpecker laughs aloud from the group of old cedars and pines, hard
by the cathedral close--you will not hear that woodland sound in any
other city in the kingdom; and the rooks caw all day from the rookery
in the old elms that grow at the side of the palace moat. But the
cathedral daws, on account of their numbers, are the most important of
the feathered inhabitants of Wells. These city birds are familiarly
called "Bishop's Jacks," to distinguish them from the "Ebor Jacks,"
the daws that in large numbers have their home and breeding-place in
the neighbouring cliffs, called the Ebor Rocks.

The Ebor daws are but the first of a succession of colonies extending
along the side of the Cheddar valley. A curious belief exists among
the people of Wells and the district, that the Ebor Jacks make better
pets than the Bishop's Jacks. If you want a young bird you have to pay
more for one from the rocks than from the cathedral. I was assured
that the cliff bird makes a livelier, more intelligent and amusing pet
than the other. A similar notion exists, or existed, at Hastings,
where there was a saying among the fisher folks and other natives that
"a Grainger daa is worth a ha'penny more than a castle daa." The
Grainger rock, once a favourite breeding-place of the daws at that
point, has long since fallen into the sea, and the saying has perhaps
died out.

At Wells most of the cathedral birds--a hundred couples at
least--breed in the cavities behind the stone statues, standing, each
in its niche, in rows, tier above tier, on the west front. In April,
when the daws are busiest at their nest-building, I have amused myself
early every morning watching them flying to the front in a constant
procession, every bird bringing his stick. This work is all done in
the early morning, and about half-past eight o'clock a man comes with
a barrow to gather up the fallen sticks--there is always a big
barrowful, heaped high, of them; and if not thus removed the
accumulated material would in a few days form a rampart or zareba,
which would prevent access to the cathedral on that side.

It has often been observed that the daw, albeit so clever a bird,
shows a curious deficiency of judgment when building, in his
persistent efforts to carry in sticks too big for the cavity. Here,
for instance, each morning in turning over the litter of fallen
material I picked up sticks measuring from four or five to seven feet
in length. These very long sticks were so slender and dry that the
bird was able to lift and to fly with them; therefore, to his corvine
mind, they were suitable for his purpose. It comes to this: the daw
knows a stick when he sees one, but the only way of testing its
usefulness to him is to pick it up in his beak, then to try to fly
with it. If the stick is six feet long and the cavity will only admit
one of not more than eighteen inches, he discovers his mistake only on
getting home. The question arises: Does he continue all his life long
repeating this egregious blunder? One can hardly believe that an old,
experienced bird can go on from day to day and year to year wasting
his energies in gathering and carrying building materials that will
have to be thrown away in the end--that he is, in fact, mentally on a
level with the great mass of meaner beings who forget nothing and
learn nothing. It is not to be doubted that the daw was once a builder
in trees, like all his relations, with the exception of the
cliff-breeding chough. He is even capable of reverting to the original
habit, as I know from an instance which has quite recently come to my
knowledge. In this case a small colony of daws have been noticed for
several years past breeding in stick nests placed among the clustering
foliage of a group of Scotch firs. This colony may have sprung from a
bird hatched and reared in the nest of a carrion crow or magpie.
Still, the habit of breeding in holes must be very ancient, and
considering that the jackdaw is one of the most intelligent of our
birds, one cannot but be astonished at the rude, primitive, blundering
way in which the nest-building work is generally performed. The most
we can see by carefully watching a number of birds at work is that
there appears to be some difference with regard to intelligence
between bird and bird. Some individuals blunder less than others; it
is possible that these have learned something from experience; but if
that be so, their better way is theirs only, and their young will not
inherit it.

One morning at Wells as I stood on the cathedral green watching the
birds at their work, I witnessed a rare and curious scene--one amazing
to an ornithologist. A bird dropped a stick--an incident that occurred
a dozen times or oftener any minute at that busy time; but in this
instance the bird had no sooner let the stick fall than he rushed down
after it to attempt its recovery, just as one may see a sparrow drop a
feather or straw, and then dart down after it and often recover it
before it touches the ground. The heavy stick fell straight and fast
on to the pile of sticks already lying on the pavement, and instantly
the daw was down and had it in his beak, and thereupon laboriously
flew up to his nesting-place, which was forty to fifty feet high. At
the moment that he rushed down after the falling stick two other daws
that happened to be standing on ledges above dropped down after him,
and copied his action by each picking up a stick and flying with it to
their nests. Other daws followed suit, and in a few minutes there was
a stream of descending and ascending daws at that spot, every
ascending bird with a stick in his beak. It was curious to see that
although sticks were lying in hundreds on the pavement along the
entire breadth of the west front, the daws continued coming down only
at that spot where the first bird had picked up the stick he had
dropped. By and by, to my regret, the birds suddenly took alarm at
something and rose up, and from that moment not one descended.

Presently the man came round with his rake and broom and barrow to
tidy up the place. Before beginning his work he solemnly made the
following remark: "Is it not curious, sir, considering the distance
the birds go to get their sticks, and the work of carrying them, that
they never, by any chance, think to come down and pick up what they
have dropped!" I replied that I had heard the same thing said before,
and that it was in all the books; and then I told him of the scene I
had just witnessed. He was very much surprised, and said that such a
thing had never been witnessed before at that place. It had a
disturbing effect on him, and he appeared to me to resent this
departure from their old ancient conservative ways on the part of the
cathedral birds.

For many mornings after I continued to watch the daws until the
nest-building was finished, without witnessing any fresh outbreak of
intelligence in the colony: they had once more shaken down into the
old inconvenient traditional groove, to the manifest relief of the man
with the broom and barrow.

Bath, like Wells, is a city that has a considerable amount of nature
in its composition, and is set down in a country of hills, woods,
rocks and streams, and is therefore, like the other, a city loved by
daws and by many other wild birds. It is a town built of white stone
in the hollow of an oblong basin, with the river Avon flowing through
it; and though perhaps too large for perfect beauty, it is exceedingly
pleasant. Its "stone walls do not a prison make," since they do not
shut you out from rural sights and sounds: walking in almost any
street, even in the lowest part, in the busiest, noisiest centre of
the town, you have but to lift your eyes to see a green hill not far
away; and viewed from the top of one of these hills that encircle it,
Bath, in certain favourable states of the atmosphere, wears a
beautiful look. One afternoon, a couple of miles out, I was on the top
of Barrow Hill in a sudden, violent storm of rain and wind; when the
rain ceased, the sun burst out behind me, and the town, rain-wet and
sun-flushed, shone white as a city built of whitest marble against the
green hills and black cloud on the farther side. Then on the slaty
blackness appeared a complete and most brilliant rainbow, on one side
streaming athwart the green hill and resting on the centre of the
town, so that the high, old, richly-decorated Abbey Church was seen
through a band of green and violet mist. That storm and that rainbow,
seen by chance, gave a peculiar grace and glory to Bath, and the
bright, unfading picture it left in memory has perhaps become too much
associated in my mind with the thought of Bath, and has given me an
exaggerated idea of its charm.

When staying in Bath in the winter of 1898-9 I saw a good deal of bird
life even in the heart of the town. At the back of the house I lodged
in, in New King Street, within four minutes' walk of the Pump Room,
there was a strip of ground called a garden, but with no plants except
a few dead stalks and stumps and two small leafless trees.
Clothes-lines were hung there, and the ground was littered with old
bricks and rubbish, and at the far end of the strip there was a
fowl-house with fowls in it, a small shed, and a wood-pile. Yet to
this unpromising-looking spot came a considerable variety of birds.
Starlings, sparrows, and chaffinches were the most numerous, while the
blackbird, thrush, robin, hedge-sparrow and wren were each represented
by a pair. The wrens lived in the wood-pile, and were the only members
of the little feathered community that did not join the others at
table when crumbs and scraps were thrown out.

It was surprising to find all or most of these birds evidently
wintering on that small plot of ground in the middle of the town,
solely for the sake of the warmth and shelter it afforded them, and
the chance crumbs that came in their way. It is true that I fed them
regularly, but they were all there before I came. Yet it was not an
absolutely safe place for them, being much infested by cats,
especially by a big black one who was always on the prowl, and who had
a peculiarly murderous gleam in his luminous yellow orbs when he
crouched down to watch or attempted to stalk them. One could not but
imagine that the very sight of such eyes in that black, devilish face
would have been enough to freeze their blood with sudden terror, and
make them powerless to fly from him. But it was not so: he could
neither fascinate nor take them by surprise. No sooner would he begin
to practise his wiles than all the population would be up in arms--the
loud, sharp summons of the blackbird sounding first; then the
starlings would chatter angrily, the thrush scream, the chaffinches
begin to _pink-pink_ with all their might, and the others would join
in, even the small hideling wrens coming out of their fortress of
faggots to take part in the demonstration. Then puss would give it up
and go away, or coil himself up and go to sleep on the sloping roof of
the tiny shed or in some other sheltered spot; peace and quiet would
once more settle on the little republic, and the birds would be
content to dwell with their enemy in their midst in full sight of
them, so long as he slept or did not watch them too narrowly.

Finding that blue tits were among the visitors at the back, I hung up
some lumps of suet and a cocoa-nut to the twigs of the bushes. The
suet was immediately attacked, but judging from the suspicious way in
which they regarded the round brown object swinging in the wind, the
Bath tits had never before been treated to a cocoa-nut. But though
suspicious, it was plain that the singular object greatly excited
their curiosity. On the second day they made the discovery that it was
a new and delightful dish invented for the benefit of the blue tits,
and from that time they were at it at all hours, coming and going from
morning till night. There were six of them, and occasionally they were
all there at once, each one anxious to secure a place, and never able
when he got one to keep it longer than three or four seconds at a
time. Looking upon them from an upper window, as they perched against
and flitted round and round the suspended cocoa-nut, they looked like
a gathering of very large pale-blue flies flitting round and feeding
on medlar.

No doubt the sparrow is the most abundant species in Bath--I have got
into a habit of not noticing that bird, and it is as if I did not see
him; but after him the starling is undoubtedly the most numerous. He
is, we know, increasing everywhere, but in no other town in England
have I found him in such numbers. He is seen in flocks of a dozen to
half a hundred, busily searching for grubs on every lawn and green
place in and round the town, and if you go up to some elevated spot so
as to look down upon Bath, you will see flocks of starlings arriving
and departing at all points. As you walk the streets their metallic
_clink-clink-clink_ sounds from all quarters--small noises which to
most men are lost among the louder noises of a populous town. It is as
if every house had a peal of minute bells hidden beneath the tiles or
slates of the roof, or among the chimney-pots, that they were
constantly being rung, and that every bell was cracked.

The ordinary or unobservant person sees and hears far more of the
jackdaw than of any other bird in Bath. Daws are seen and heard all
over the town, but are most common about the Abbey, where they soar
and gambol and quarrel all day long, and when they think that nobody
is looking, drop down to the streets to snatch up and carry off any
eatable-looking object that catches their eye.

It was here at this central spot, while I stood one day idly watching
the birds disporting themselves about the Abbey and listened to their
clamour, that certain words of Ruskin came into my mind, and I began
to think of them not merely with admiration, as when I first read them
long ago, but critically.

Ruskin, one of our greatest prose writers, is usually at his best in
the transposition of pictures into words, his descriptions of what he
has seen, in nature and art, being the most perfect examples of "word
painting" in the language. Here his writing is that of one whose
vision is not merely, as in the majority of men, the most important
and intellectual of the senses, but so infinitely more important than
all the others, and developed and trained to so extraordinary a
degree, as to make him appear like a person of a single sense. We may
say that this predominant sense has caused, or fed upon, the decay of
the others. This is to me a defect in the author I most admire; for
though he makes me see, and delight in seeing, that which was
previously hidden, and all things gain in beauty and splendour, I yet
miss something from the picture, just as I should miss light and
colour from a description of nature, however beautifully written, by a
man whose sense of sight was nothing or next to nothing to him, but
whose other senses were all developed to the highest state of
perfection.

No doubt Ruskin is, before everything, an artist: in other words, he
looks at nature and all visible things with a purpose, which I am
happily without: and the reflex effect of his purpose is to make
nature to him what it can never appear to me--a painted canvas. But
this subject, which I have touched on in a single sentence, demands a
volume.

Ruskin wrote of the cathedral daws, "That drift of eddying black
points, now closing, now scattering, now settling suddenly into
invisible places among the bosses and flowers, the crowd of restless
birds that fill the whole square with that strange clangour of theirs,
so harsh and yet so soothing." For it seemed to me that he had seen
the birds but had not properly heard them; or else that to his mind
the sound they made was of such small consequence in the effect of the
whole scene--so insignificant an element compared with the sight of
them--that it was really not worth attending to and describing
accurately.

Possibly, in this particular case, when in speaking of the daws he
finished his description by throwing in a few words about their
voices, he was thinking less of the impression on his own mind,
presumably always vague about natural sounds, than of what the poet
Cowper had said in the best passage in his best work about "sounds
harsh and inharmonious in themselves," which are yet able to produce a
soothing effect on us on account of the peaceful scenes amid which
they are heard.

Cowper's notion of the daw's voice, by the way, was just as false as
that expressed by Ruskin, as we may find in his paraphrase of Vincent
Bourne's lines to that bird:--

   There is a bird that by his coat,
   And by the hoarseness of his note
   Might be supposed a crow.

Now the daw is capable at times of emitting both hoarse and harsh
notes, and the same may perhaps be said of a majority of birds; but
his usual note--the cry or caw varied and inflected a hundred ways,
which we hear every day and all day long where daws abound--is neither
harsh like the crow's, nor hoarse like the rook's. It is, in fact, as
unlike the harsh, grating caw of the former species as the clarion
call of the cock is unlike the grunting of swine. It may not be
described as bell-like nor metallic, but it is loud and clear, with an
engaging wildness in it, and, like metallic sounds, far-reaching; and
of so good a quality that very little more would make it ring
musically.

Sometimes when I go into this ancient abbey church, or into some
cathedral, and seating myself, and looking over a forest of
bonnets, see a pale young curate with a black moustache, arrayed
in white vestments, standing before the reading-desk, and hear him
gabbling some part of the Service in a continuous buzz and rumble
that roams like a gigantic blue-bottle through the vast dim
interior, then I, not following him--for I do not know where he is,
and cannot find out however much I should like to--am apt to
remember the daws out of doors, and to think that it would be well
if that young man would but climb up into the highest tower, or on
to the roof, and dwell there for the space of a year listening to
them; and that he would fill his mouth with polished pebbles, and
medals, and coins and seals and seal-rings, and small porcelain
cats and dogs, and little silver pigs, and other objects from the
chatelaines of his lady admirers, and strive to imitate that
clear, penetrating sound of the bird's voice, until he had
mastered the rare and beautiful arts of voice production and
distinct understandable speech.

To go back to Cowper--the poet who has been much in men's thoughts of
late, and who appears to us as perhaps the most modern-minded of those
who ceased to live a century ago. Undoubtedly he was as bad a
naturalist as any singer before or after him, and as any true poet has
a perfect right to be. As bad, let us say, as Shakespeare and
Wordsworth and Tennyson. He does not, it is true, confound the sparrow
and hedge-sparrow like Wordsworth, nor confound the white owl with the
brown owl like Tennyson, nor puzzle the ornithologist with a "sea-blue
bird of March." But we must not forget that he addressed some verses
to a nightingale heard on New Year's Day. It is clear that he did not
know the crows well, for in a letter of May 10, 1780, to his friend
Newton, he writes: "A crow, rook, or raven, has built a nest in one of
the young elm-trees, at the side of Mrs Aspray's orchard." But when he
wrote those words--

   Sounds inharmonious in themselves, and harsh,
   Yet heard in scenes where peace for ever reigns,
   And only there, please highly for their sake--

words which I have suggested misled Ruskin, and have certainly
misled others--he, Cowper, knew better. His real feeling, and
better and wiser thought, is expressed in one of his incomparable
letters (Hayley, vol. ii. p. 230)--

"My green-house is never so pleasant as when we are just
on the point of surrendering it.... I sit with all the windows and
the door wide open, and am regaled with the scent of every flower
in a garden as full of flowers as I have known how to make it. We
keep no bees, but if I lived in a hive I could hardly have more of
their music. All the bees in the neighbourhood resort to a bed of
mignonette opposite to the window, and pay me for the honey they
get out of it by a hum, which, though rather monotonous, is as
agreeable to my ears as the whistling of my linnets. All the
sounds that nature utters are delightful, at least in this
country. I should not perhaps find the roaring of lions in Africa,
or of bears in Russia, very pleasing; but I know no beast in
England whose voice I do not account as musical, save and except
always the braying of an ass. The notes of all our birds and fowls
please me, without one exception. I should not indeed think of
keeping a goose in a cage that I might hang him up in the parlour
for the sake of his melody, but a goose upon a common, or in a
farmyard, is no bad performer; and as to insects, if the black
beetle, and beetles indeed of all hues, will keep out of my way, I
have no objection to any of the rest; on the contrary, in whatever
key they sing, from the gnat's fine treble to the bass of
the bumble-bee, I admire all. Seriously, however, it strikes me as
a very observable instance of providential kindness to men, that
such an exact accord has been contrived between his ear and the
sounds with which, at least in a rural situation, it is almost
every moment visited."

Who has not felt the truth of this saying, that all natural sounds
heard in their proper surroundings are pleasing; that even those
which we call harsh do not distress, jarring or grating on our
nerves, like artificial noises! The braying of the donkey was to
Cowper the one exception in animal life; but he never heard it in
its proper conditions. I have often listened to it, and have been
deeply impressed, in a wild, silent country, in a place where
herds of semi-wild asses roamed over the plains; and the sound at
a distance had a wild expression that accorded with the scene, and
owing to its much greater power effected the mind more than the
trumpeting of wild swans, and shrill neighing of wild horses, and
other far-reaching cries of wild animals.

About the sounds emitted by geese in a state of nature, and the
effect produced on the mind, I shall have something to say in a
chapter on that bird.



CHAPTER IV

EARLY SPRING IN SAVERNAKE FOREST


When the spring-feeling is in the blood, infecting us with vague
longings for we know not what; when we are restless and seem to be
waiting for some obstruction to be removed--blown away by winds, or
washed away by rains--some change that will open the way to liberty
and happiness,--the feeling not unfrequently takes a more or less
definite form: we want to go away somewhere, to be at a distance
from our fellow-beings, and nearer, if not to the sun, at all
events to wild nature. At such times I think of all the places
where I should like to be, and one is Savernake; and thither in
two following seasons I have gone to ramble day after day,
forgetting the world and myself in its endless woods.

It is not that spring is early there; on the contrary, it is actually
later by many days than in the surrounding country. It is flowerless
at a time when, outside the forest, on southern banks and by the
hedge-side, in coppices and all sheltered spots, the firstlings of the
year are seen--purple and white and yellow. The woods, which are
composed almost entirely of beech and oak, are leafless. The aspect on
a dull cold day is somewhat cheerless. On the other hand, there is
that largeness and wildness which accord with the spring mood; and
there are signs of the coming change even in the greyest weather.
Standing in some wide green drive or other open space, you see all
about you acres on acres, miles on miles, of majestic beeches, and
their upper branches and network of terminal twigs, that look at a
distance like heavy banked-up clouds, are dusky red and purple with
the renewed life that is surging in them. There are jubilant cries of
wild creatures that have felt the seasonal change far more keenly than
we are able to feel it. Above everything, we find here that
solitariness and absence of human interest now so rare in England. For
albeit social creatures in the main, we are yet all of us at times
hermits in heart, if not exactly wild men of the woods; and that
solitude which we create by shutting ourselves from the world in a
room or a house, is but a poor substitute--nay, a sham: it is to
immure ourselves in a cage, a prison, which hardly serves to keep out
the all-pervading atmosphere of miserable conventions, and cannot
refresh and invigorate us. There are seasons and moods when even the
New Forest does not seem sufficiently remote from life: in its most
secluded places one is always liable to encounter a human being, an
old resident, going about in the exercise of his commoner's rights; or
else his ponies or cows or swine. These last, if they be not of some
improved breed, may have a novel or quaint aspect, as of wild
creatures, but the appearance is deceptive; as you pass they lift
their long snouts from grubbing among the dead leaves to salute you
with a too familiar grunt--an assurance that William Rufus is dead,
and all is well; that they are domestic, and will spend their last
days in a stye, and end their life respectably at the hands of the
butcher.

At Savernake there is nothing so humanised as the pig, even of the old
type; you may roam for long hours and see no man and no domestic
animal. You have heard that this domain is the property of some
person, but it seems like a fiction. The forest is nature's and yours.
There you are at liberty to ramble all day unchallenged by any one; to
walk, and run to warm yourself; to disturb a herd of red deer, or of
fallow deer, which are more numerous; to watch them standing still to
gaze back at you, then all with one impulse move rapidly away, showing
their painted tails, keeping a kind of discipline, row behind row,
moving over the turf with that airy tripping or mincing gait that
strikes you as quaint and somewhat bird-like. Or you may coil yourself
up, adder-like, beside a thick hawthorn bush, or at the roots of a
giant oak or beech, and enjoy the vernal warmth, while outside of your
shelter the wind blows bleak and loud.

To lie or sit thus for an hour at a time listening to the wind is an
experience worth going far to seek. It is very restorative. That is a
mysterious voice which the forest has: it speaks to us, and somehow
the life it expresses seems nearer, more intimate, than that of the
sea. Doubtless because we are ourselves terrestrial and woodland in
our origin; also because the sound is infinitely more varied as well
as more human in character. There are sighings and moanings, and wails
and shrieks, and wind-blown murmurings, like the distant confused
talking of a vast multitude. A high wind in an extensive wood always
produces this effect of numbers. The sea-like sounds and rhythmic
volleyings, when the gale is at its loudest, die away, and in the
succeeding lull there are only low, mysterious agitated whisperings;
but they are multitudinous; the suggestion is ever of a vast
concourse--crowds and congregations, tumultuous or orderly, but all
swayed by one absorbing impulse, solemn or passionate. But not always
moved simultaneously. Through the near whisperings a deeper, louder
sound comes from a distance. It rumbles like thunder, falling and
rising as it rolls onwards; it is antiphonal, but changes as it
travels nearer. Then there is no longer demand and response; the
smitten trees are all bent one way, and their innumerable voices are
as one voice, expressing we know not what, but always something not
wholly strange to us--lament, entreaty, denunciation.

Listening, thinking of nothing, simply living in the sound of the
wind, that strange feeling which is unrelated to anything that
concerns us, of the life and intelligence inherent in nature,
grows upon the mind. I have sometimes thought that never does the
world seem more alive and watchful of us than on a still,
moonlight night in a solitary wood, when the dusky green foliage
is silvered by the beams, and all visible objects and the white
lights and black shadows in the intervening spaces seem
instinct with spirit. But it is not so. If the conditions be
favourable, if we go to our solitude as the crystal-gazer to his
crystal, with a mind prepared, this faculty is capable of awaking
and taking complete possession of us by day as well as by night.

As the trees are mostly beeches--miles upon miles of great trees,
many of them hollow-trunked from age and decay--the fallen leaves
are an important element in the forest scenery. They lie half a
yard to a yard deep in all the deep hollows and dells and old
water-worn channels, and where the ground is sheltered they cover
acres of ground--millions and myriads of dead, fallen beech leaves.
These, too, always seem to be alive. It is a leaf that refuses to
die wholly. When separated from the tree it has, if not
immortality, at all events a second, longer life. Oak and ash and
chestnut leaves fade from month to month and blacken, and finally
rot and mingle with the earth, while the beech leaf keeps its
sharp clean edges unbroken, its hard texture and fiery colour, its
buoyancy and rustling incisive sound. Swept by the autumn winds
into sheltered hollows and beaten down by rains, the leaves lie
mingled in one dead, sodden mass for days and weeks at a time, and
appear ready to mix with the soil; but frost and sun suck
up the moisture and the dead come to life again. They glow like
fire, and tremble at every breath. It was strange and beautiful to
see them lying all around me, glowing copper and red and gold when
the sun was strong on them, not dead, but sleeping like a
bright-coloured serpent in the genial warmth; to see, when the
wind found them, how they trembled, and moved as if awakening; and
as the breath increased rose up in twos and threes and half-dozens
here and there, chasing one another a little way, hissing and
rustling; then all at once, struck by a violent gust, they would
be up in thousands, eddying round and round in a dance, and,
whirling aloft, scatter and float among the lofty branches to
which they were once attached.

On a calm day, when there was no motion in the sunlit yellow leaves
below and the reddish-purple cloud of twigs above, the sounds of
bird-life were the chief attraction of the forest. Of these the cooing
of the wood-pigeon gave me the most pleasure. Here some reader may
remark that this pigeon's song is a more agreeable sound than its
plain cooing note. This, indeed, is perhaps thought little of. In most
biographies of the bird it is not even mentioned that he possesses
such a note. Nevertheless I prefer it to the song. The song
itself--the set melody composed of half a dozen inflected notes,
repeated three or four times with little or no variation--is
occasionally heard in the late winter and early spring, but at this
time of the year it is often too husky or croaky to be agreeable. The
songster has not yet thrown off his seasonal cold; the sound might
sometimes proceed from a crow suffering from a catarrh. It improves as
the season advances. The song is sometimes spelt in books:

   _Coo-coó-roo, coó-coo-roo._

A lady friend assures me the right words of this song are:

   Take _two_ cows, David.

She cannot, if she tries, make the bird say anything different,
for these are the words she was taught to hear in the song, as a
child, in Leicestershire. Of course they are uttered with a great
deal of emotion in the tone, David being tearfully, almost
sobbingly, begged and implored to take two cows; the emphasis is
very strong on the two--it is apparently a matter of the utmost
consequence that David should not take one, nor three, nor any
other number of cows, but just two.

In East Anglia I have been informed that what the bird really and
truly says is--

   My toe bleeds, Betty.

Many as are the species capable of articulate speech, as we may
see by referring to any ornithological work, there is no bird in
our woods whose notes more readily lend themselves to this
childish fancy than the wood-pigeon, on account of the depth and
singularly human quality of its voice. The song is a passionate
complaint. One can fancy the human-like feathered creature in her
green bower, pleading, upbraiding, lamenting; and, listening, we
will find it easy enough to put it all into plain language:

   O swear not you love me, for you cannot be true,
   O perjured wood-pigeon! Go from me--woo
   Some other! Heart-broken I rue
   That softness, ah me! when you cooed your false coo.
   Soar to your new love--the creature in blue!
   Who, who would have thought it of you!
   And perhaps you consider her beau--
   Oo--tiful! O you are too too cru--
   Bid them come shoo--oot me, do, do!
   Would I had given my heart to a hoo--
   Oo-ting wood-owl, cuckoo, woodcock, hoopoo!

One morning, at a village in Berkshire, I was walking along the
road, about twenty-five yards from a cottage, when I heard, as I
imagined, the familiar song of the wood-pigeon; but it sounded
too close, for the nearest trees were fifty yards distant.
Glancing up at the open window of an upper room in the cottage, I
made the discovery that my supposed pigeon was a four-year-old
child who had recently been chastised by his mother and sent
upstairs to do penance. There he sat by the open window, his face
in his hands, crying, not as if his heart would break, but seeming
to take a mournful pleasure in the rhythmical sound of his own
sobs and moans; they had settled into a rising and falling
_boo-hoo_, with regularly recurring long and short notes, agreeable
to the ear, and very creditable to the little crier's musical
capacity. The incident shows how much the pigeon's plaint
resembles some human sounds.

The plain cooing note is so common in this order of birds that it
may be regarded as the original and universal pigeon language, out
of which the set songs have been developed, with, in most
instances, but little change in the quality of the sound. In the
multitude of species there are voices clear, resonant, thick, or
husky, or guttural, hollow or booming, grating and grunting; but,
however much they vary, you can generally detect the _pigeon_ or
_family_ sound, which is more or less human-like. In some species
the set song has almost superseded the plain single note,
which has diminished to a mere murmur; in others, on the contrary,
there is no song at all, unless the single unvarying coo can be
called a song. In most species in the typical genus Columba the
plain coo is quite distinct from the set song, but has at the same
time developed into a kind of second song, the note being
pleasantly modulated and repeated many times. We find this in the
rock-dove: the curious guttural sounds composing its set song,
which accompany the love antics of the male, are not musical,
while the clear inflected cooing note is agreeable to most ears.
It is a pleasing morning sound of the dove-cote; but the note, to
be properly appreciated, must be heard in some dimly lighted
ocean-cavern in which the bird breeds in its wild state. The
long-drawn, oft-repeated musical coo mingles with and is heard
above the murmuring and lapping of the water beneath; the hollow
chamber retains and prolongs the sound, and makes it more
sonorous, and at the same time gives it something of mystery.

Of all the cooing notes of the different species I am acquainted with,
that of the stock-dove, a pigeon with no set song, is undoubtedly the
most attractive: next in order is that of the wood-pigeon on account
of its depth and human-like character. And it is far from monotonous.
In this wood in March I have often kept near a pigeon for half an hour
at a time hearing it uttering its cooing note, repeated half a dozen
or more times, at intervals of three or four minutes; and again and
again the note has changed in length and power and modulation. In the
profound stillness, on a windless day, of the vast beechen woods,
these sonorous notes had a singularly beautiful effect.

After spending a short time in the forest, one might easily get
the idea that it is a sanctuary for all the persecuted creatures
of the crow family. It is not quite that; the ravens have been
destroyed here as in most places; but the other birds of that
tribe are so numerous that even the most bloodthirsty keeper might
be appalled at the task of destroying them. The clearance would
doubtless have been effected if this noble forest had passed, as
so nearly happened, out of the hands of the family that have so
long possessed it: that calamity was happily averted. Not only are
the rooks there in legions, having their rookeries in the park,
but, throughout the forest, daws, carrion crows, jays, and magpies
are abundant. The jackdaws outnumber all the other species (rooks
included) put together; they literally swarm, and their
ringing, yelping cries may be heard at all hours of the day in any
part of the forest. In March, when they are nesting, their numbers
are concentrated in those parts of the wood where the trees, beech
and oak, are very old and have hollow trunks. In some places you
will find many acres of wood where every tree is hollow and
apparently inhabited. Yet there are doubtless some hollow trees
into which the daw is not permitted to intrude. The wood-owl is
common here, and is presumably well able to hold his castle
against all aggressors. If one could but climb into the airy
tower, and, sitting invisible, watch the siege and defence and the
many strange incidents of the war between these feathered foes!
The daw, bold yet cautious, venturing a little way into the dim
interior, with shrill threats of ejectment, ruffling his grey pate
and peeping down with his small, malicious, serpent-like grey
eyes; the owl puffing out his tiger-coloured plumage, and lifting
to the light his pale, shield-like face and luminous eyes,--would
indeed be a rare spectacle; and then, what hissings, snappings,
and beak-clatterings, and shrill, cat-like, and yelping cries!
But, although these singular contests go on so near us, a few
yards above the surface, Savernake might be in the misty
mid-region of Weir, or on the slopes of Mount Yanik, for all the
chance we have of witnessing them.

An experience I had one day when I was new to the forest and used
occasionally to lose myself, gave me some idea of the numbers of
jackdaws breeding in Savernake. During my walk I came to a spot
where all round me and as far as could be seen the trees were in
an advanced state of decay: not only were they hollow and rotten
within, but the immense horizontal branches and portions of the
trunks were covered with a thick crop of fern, which, mixed with
dead grass and moss, gave the dying giants of the forest a
strange, ragged and desolate appearance. Many a time looking at
one of these trees I have been reminded of Holman Hunt's forlorn
Scapegoat. Here the daws had their most populous settlement. As I
advanced, the dead twigs and leaves crackling beneath my feet,
they rose up everywhere, singly and in twos and threes and
half-dozens, darting hurriedly away and disappearing among the
trees before me. The alarm-note they emit at such times is like
their usual yelping call subdued to a short, querulous chirp; and
this note now sounded before me and on either hand, at a distance
of about one hundred yards, uttered continually by so many
birds that their voices mingled into a curious sharp murmur. Tired
of walking, I sat down on a root in the shelter of a large oak,
and remained there perfectly motionless for about an hour. But the
birds never lost their suspicion; all the time the distant subdued
tempest of sharp notes went on, occasionally dying down until it
nearly ceased, then suddenly rising and spreading again until I
was ringed round with the sound. At length the loud, sharp
invitation or order to fly was given and taken up by many birds;
then, through the opening among the trees before me, I saw them
rise in a dense flock and circle about at a distance: other flocks
rose on the right and left hands and joined the first; and finally
the whole mass come slowly overhead as if to explore; but when the
foremost birds were directly over me the flock divided into two
columns, which deployed to the right and left, and at a distance
poured again into the trees. There could not have been fewer than
two thousand birds in the flock that came over me, and they were
probably all building in that part of the forest.

The daw, whether tame or distrustful of man, is always
interesting. Here I was even more interested in the jays, and it
was indeed chiefly for the pleasure of seeing them, when they are
best to look at, that I visited this forest. I had also
formed the idea that there was no place in England where the jay
could be seen to better advantage, as they are, or until recently
were, exceedingly abundant at Savernake, and were not in constant
fear of the keeper and his everlasting gun. Here one could witness
their early spring assemblies, when the jay, beautiful at all
times, is seen at his very best.

It is necessary to say here that this habit of the jay does not appear
to be too well known to our ornithologists. When I stated in a small
work on British Birds a few years ago that jays had the custom of
congregating in spring, a distinguished naturalist, who reviewed the
book in one of the papers, rebuked me for so absurd a statement, and
informed me that the jay is a solitary bird except at the end of
summer and in the early autumn, when they are sometimes seen in
families. If I had not made it a rule never to reply to a critic, I
could have informed this one that I knew exactly where his knowledge
of the habits of the jay was derived-that it dated back to a book
published ninety-nine years ago. It was a very good book, and all it
contains, some errors included, have been incorporated in most of the
important ornithological works which have appeared during the
nineteenth century. But though my critic thus "wrote it all by rote,"
according to the books, "he did not write it right." The ancient error
has not, however, been repeated by all writers on the subject.
Seebohm, in his History of British Birds, wrote: "Sometimes,
especially in Spring, fortune may favour you, and you will see a
regular gathering of these noisy birds.... It is only at this time
that the jay displays a social disposition; and the birds may often be
heard to utter a great variety of notes, some of the modulations
approaching almost to a song."

The truth of the statement I have made that most of our writers on
birds have strictly followed Montague in his account of the jay's
habits, unmistakably shows itself in all they say about the bird's
language. Montagu wrote in his famous Dictionary of Birds (1802):--

"Its common notes are various, but harsh; will sometimes in spring
utter a sort of song in a soft and pleasing manner, but so low as
not to be heard at any distance; and at intervals introduce the
bleatings of a Lamb, mewing of a Cat, the note of a Kite or
Buzzard, hooting of an Owl, and even the neighing of a Horse.

"These imitations are so exact, even in a natural wild state, that
we have frequently been deceived."

This description somewhat amplified, and the wording
varied to suit the writer's style, has been copied into most books
on British birds--the lamb and the cat, and the kite and the horse,
faithfully appearing in most cases. Yet it is certain that if all
the writers had listened to the jay's vocal performances for
themselves, they would have given a different account. It is not
that Montagu was wrong: he went to nature for his facts and put
down what he heard, or thought he heard, but the particular sounds
which he describes they would not have heard.

My experience is, that the same notes and phrases are not
ordinarily heard in any two localities; that the bird is able to
emit a great variety of sounds--some highly musical; that he is
also a great mimic in a wild irregular way, mixing borrowed notes
with his own, and flinging them out anyhow, so that there is no
order nor harmony, and they do not form a song.

But he also has a real song, which may be heard in any assembly of
jays and from some male birds after the congregating season is
over and breeding is in progress. This singing of the jay is
somewhat of a puzzle, as it is not the same song in any two
places, and gives one the idea that there is no inherited and no
traditional song in this species, but that each bird that
has a song has invented it for himself. It varies from "a sort of
low song," as Montagu said,--a soft chatter and warble which one
can just hear at a distance of thirty or forty yards,--to a song
composed of several musical notes harmoniously arranged, which may
be heard distinctly a quarter of a mile away. This set and
far-reaching song is rare, but some birds have a single very
powerful and musical note, or short phrase, which they repeat at
regular intervals by way of song. If by following up the sound one
can get near enough to the tree where the meeting is being held to
see what is going on, it is most interesting to watch the
vocalist, who is like a leader, and who, perched quietly,
continues to repeat that one powerful, unchanging, measured sound
in the midst of a continuous concert of more or less musical
sounds from the other birds.

What I should very much like to know is, whether these powerful
and peculiar notes, phrases, and songs of the jay, which are
clearly not imitations of other species, are repeated year after
year by the birds in the same localities, or are dropped for ever
or forgotten at the end of each season. It is hard for me to find
this out, because I do not as a rule revisit the same places in
spring, and on going to a new or a different spot I find
that the birds utter different sounds. Again, the places where
jays assemble in numbers are very few and far between. It is true,
as an observant gamekeeper once said to me, that if there are as
many as half a dozen to a dozen jays in any wood they will
contrive to hold a meeting; but when the birds are few and much
persecuted, it is difficult to see and hear them at such times,
and when seen and heard, no adequate idea is formed of the beauty
of their displays, and the power and variety of their language, as
witnessed in localities where they are numerous, and fear of the
keeper's gun has not damped their mad, jubilant spirits.

In genial weather the jays' assembly may be held at any hour, but
is most frequently seen during the early part of the day: on a
fine warm morning in March and April one can always count on
witnessing an assembly, or at all events of hearing the birds, in
any wood where they are fairly common and not very shy. They are
so vociferous and so conspicuous to the eye during these social
intervals, and at the same time so carried away by excitement,
that it is not only easy to find and see them, but possible at
times to observe them very closely.

The loud rasping alarm- and angry-cry of the jay is a
sound familiar to every one; the cry used by the bird to call his
fellows together is somewhat different. It resembles the cry or
call of the carrion crow, in localities where that bird is not
persecuted, when, in the love season, he takes his stand on the
top of the nesting-tree and calls with a prolonged, harsh,
grating, and exceedingly powerful note, many times repeated. The
jay's call has the same grating or grinding character, but is
louder, sharper, more prolonged, and in a quiet atmosphere may be
heard distinctly a mile away. The wood is in an uproar when the
birds assemble and scream in concert while madly pursuing one
another over the tall trees.

At such times the peculiar flight of the jay is best seen and is very
beautiful. In almost all birds that have short, round wings, as we may
see in our little wren, and in game birds, and the sparrow-hawk, and
several others, the wing-beats are exceedingly rapid. This is the case
with the magpie; the quickness of the wing-beats causes the black and
white on the quills to mingle and appear a misty grey; but at short
intervals the bird glides and the wings appear black and white again.
The jay, although his wings are so short and round, when not in a
hurry progresses by means of comparatively slow, measured wing-beats,
and looks as if swimming rather than flying.

It is when the gathered birds all finally settle on a tree that they
are most to be admired. They will sometimes remain on the spot for
half an hour or longer, displaying their graces and emitting the
extraordinary medley of noises mixed with musical sounds. But they do
not often sit still at such times; if there are many birds, and the
excitement is great, some of them are perpetually moving, jumping and
flitting from branch to branch, and springing into the air to wheel
round or pass over the tree, all apparently intent on showing off
their various colours--vinaceous brown, sky blue, velvet black, and
glistening white--to the best advantage.

Again and again, when watching these gatherings at Savernake and at
other places where jays abound, I have been reminded of the
description given by Alfred Russel Wallace of the bird of paradise
assemblies in the Malayan region. Our jay in some ways resembles his
glorious Eastern relation; and although his lustre is so much less, he
is at his very best not altogether unworthy of being called the
British Bird of Paradise.



CHAPTER V

A WOOD WREN AT WELLS


East of Wells Cathedral, close to the moat surrounding the bishop's
palace, there is a beautifully wooded spot, a steep slope, where the
birds had their headquarters. There was much to attract them there:
sheltered by the hill behind, it was a warm corner, a wooded angle,
protected by high old stone walls, dear to the redstart, masses of
ivy, and thickets of evergreens; while outside the walls were green
meadows and running water. When going out for a walk I always passed
through this wood, lingering a little in it; and when I wanted to
smoke a pipe, or have a lazy hour to myself among the trees, or
sitting in the sun, I almost invariably made for this favourite spot.
At different hours of the day I was a visitor, and there I heard the
first spring migrants on their arrival--chiff-chaff, willow wren,
cuckoo, redstart, blackcap, white-throat. Then, when April was drawing
to an end, I said, There are no more to come. For the wryneck, lesser
white-throat, and garden warbler had failed to appear, and the few
nightingales that visit the neighbourhood had settled down in a more
secluded spot a couple of miles away, where the million leaves in
coppice and brake were not set a-tremble by the melodious thunder of
the cathedral chimes.

Nevertheless, there was another still to come, the one I perhaps love
best of all. On the last day of April I heard the song of the wood
wren, and at once all the other notes ceased for a while to interest
me. Even the last comer, the mellow blackcap, might have been singing
at that spot since February, like the wren and hedge-sparrow, so
familiar and workaday a strain did it seem to have compared with this
late warbler. I was more than glad to welcome him to that particular
spot, where if he chose to stay I should have him so near me.

It is well known that the wood wren can only be properly seen
immediately after his arrival in this country, at the end of April or
early in May, when the young foliage does not so completely hide his
slight unresting form, as is the case afterwards. For he,
too, is green in colour; like Wordsworth's green linnet,

   A brother of the leaves he seems.

There is another reason why he can be seen so much better during the
first days of his sojourn with us: he does not then keep to the higher
parts of the tall trees he frequents, as his habit is later, when the
air is warm and the minute winged insects on which he feeds are
abundant on the upper sun-touched foliage of the high oaks and
beeches. On account of that ambitious habit of the wood wren there is
no bird with us so difficult to observe; you may spend hours at a
spot, where his voice sounds from the trees at intervals of half a
minute to a minute, without once getting a glimpse of his form. At the
end of April the trees are still very thinly clad; the upper foliage
is but an airy garment, a slight golden-green mist, through which the
sun shines, lighting up the dim interior, and making the bed of old
fallen beech-leaves look like a floor of red gold. The small-winged
insects, sun-loving and sensitive to cold, then hold their revels near
the surface; and the bird, too, prefers the neighbourhood of the
earth. It was so in the case of the wood wren I observed at Wells,
watching him on several consecutive days, sometimes for an hour or two
at a stretch, and generally more than once a day. The spot where he
was always to be found was quite free from underwood, and the trees
were straight and tall, most of them with slender, smooth boles.
Standing there, my figure must have looked very conspicuous to all the
small birds in the place; but for a time it seemed to me that the wood
wren paid not the slightest attention to my presence; that as he
wandered hither and thither in sunlight and shade at his own sweet
will, my motionless form was no more to him than a moss-grown stump or
grey upright stone. By and by it became apparent that the bird knew me
to be no stump or stone, but a strange living creature whose
appearance greatly interested him; for invariably, soon after I had
taken up my position, his careless little flights from twig to twig
and from tree to tree brought him nearer, and then nearer, and finally
near me he would remain for most of the time. Sometimes he would
wander for a distance of forty or fifty yards away, but before long he
would wander back and be with me once more, often perching so near
that the most delicate shadings of his plumage were as distinctly seen
as if I had had him perched on my hand.

The human form seen in an unaccustomed place always excites a good
deal of attention among the birds; it awakes their curiosity,
suspicion, and alarm. The wood wren was probably curious and nothing
more; his keeping near me looked strange only because he at the same
time appeared so wholly absorbed in his own music. Two or three times
I tried the experiment of walking to a distance of fifty or sixty
yards and taking up a new position; but always after a while he would
drift thither, and I would have him near me, singing and moving, as
before.

I was glad of this inquisitiveness, if that was the bird's motive
(that I had unconsciously fascinated him I could not believe); for of
all the wood wrens I have seen this seemed the most beautiful, most
graceful in his motions, and untiring in song. Doubtless this was
because I saw him so closely, and for such long intervals. His fresh
yellowish-green upper and white under plumage gave him a wonderfully
delicate appearance, and these colours harmonised with the tender
greens of the opening leaves and the pale greys and silvery whites of
the slender boles.

Seebohm says of this species: "They arrive in our woods in
marvellously perfect plumage. In the early morning sun they look
almost as delicate a yellowish-green as the half-grown leaves amongst
which they disport themselves. In the hand the delicate shading of the
eye-stripe, and the margin of the feathers of the wings and tail, is
exquisitely beautiful, but is almost all lost under the rude handling
of the bird-skinner."

The concluding words sound almost strange; but it is a fact that this
sylph-like creature is sometimes shattered with shot and its poor
remains operated on by the bird-stuffer. Its beauty "in the hand"
cannot compare with that exhibited when it lives and moves and sings.
Its appearance during flight differs from that of other warblers on
account of the greater length and sharpness of the wings. Most
warblers fly and sing hurriedly; the wood wren's motions, like its
song, are slower, more leisurely, and more beautiful. When moved by
the singing passion it is seldom still for more than a few moments at
a time, but is continually passing from branch to branch, from tree to
tree, finding a fresh perch from which to deliver its song on each
occasion. At such times it has the appearance of a delicately coloured
miniature kestrel or hobby. Most lovely is its appearance when it
begins to sing in the air, for then the long sharp wings beat time to
the first clear measured notes, the prelude to the song. As a rule,
however, the flight is silent, and the song begins when the new perch
is reached--first the distinct notes that are like musical strokes,
and fall faster and faster until they run and swell into a long
passionate trill--the woodland sound which is like no other.

Charming a creature as the wood wren appears when thus viewed closely
in the early spring-time, he is not my favourite among small birds
because of his beauty of shape and colour and graceful motions, which
are seen only for a short time, but on account of his song, which
lasts until September; though I may not find it very easy to give a
reason for the preference.

It comforts me a little in this inquiry to remember that Wordsworth
preferred the stock-dove to the nightingale--that "creature of
ebullient heart." The poet was a little shaky in his ornithology at
times; but if we take it that he meant the ring-dove, his preference
might still seem strange to some. Perhaps it is not so very strange
after all.

If we take any one of the various qualities which we have agreed to
consider highest in bird-music, we find that the wood wren compares
badly with his fellow-vocalists--that, measured by this standard, he
is a very inferior singer. Thus, in variety, he cannot compare with
the thrush, garden-warbler, sedge-warbler, and others; in brilliance
and purity of sound with the nightingale, blackcap, etc.; in strength
and joyousness with the skylark; in mellowness with the blackbird; in
sprightliness with the goldfinch and chaffinch; in sweetness with the
wood-lark, tree-pipit, reed-warbler, the chats and wagtails, and so on
to the end of all the qualities which we regard as important. What,
then, is the charm of the wood wren's song? The sound is unlike any
other, but that is nothing, since the same can be said of the wryneck
and cuckoo and grasshopper warbler. To many persons the wood wren's
note is a bird-sound and nothing more, and it may even surprise them
to hear it called a song. Indeed, some ornithologists have said that
it is not a song, but a call or cry, and it has also been described as
"harsh."

I here recall a lady who sat next to me on the coach that took me from
Minehead to Lynton. The lady resided at Lynton, and finding that I was
visiting the place for the first time, she proceeded to describe its
attractions with fluent enthusiasm. When we arrived at the town, and
were moving very slowly into it, my companion turned and examined my
face, waiting to hear the expressions of rapturous admiration that
would fall from my lips. Said I, "There is one thing you can boast of
in Lynton. So far as I know, it is the only town in the country where,
sitting in your own room with the windows open, you can listen to the
song of the wood wren." Her face fell. She had never heard of the wood
wren, and when I pointed to the tree from which the sound came and she
listened and heard, she turned away, evidently too disgusted to say
anything. She had been wasting her eloquence on an unworthy
subject--one who was without appreciation for the sublime and
beautiful in nature. The wild romantic Lynn, tumbling with noise and
foam over its rough stony bed, the vast wooded hills, the piled-up
black rocks (covered in places with beautiful red and blue lettered
advertisements), had been passed by in silence--nothing had stirred me
but the chirping of a miserable little bird, which, for all that she
knew or cared, might be a sparrow! When we got down from the coach a
couple of minutes later, she walked away without even saying good-bye.

There is no doubt that very many persons know and care as little about
bird voices as this lady; but how about the others who do know and
care a good deal--what do they think and feel about the song of the
wood wren? I know two or three persons who are as fond of the bird as
I am; and two or three recent writers on bird life have spoken of its
song as if they loved it. The ornithologists have in most cases been
satisfied to quote Gilbert White's description of Letter XIX.: "This
last haunts only the tops of trees in high beechen woods, and makes a
sibilous grasshopper-like noise now and then, at short intervals,
shaking a little with its wings when it sings."

White was a little more appreciative in the case of the willow wren
when he spoke of its "joyous, easy, laughing note"; yet the willow
wren has had to wait a long time to be recognised as one of our best
vocalists. Some years ago it was greatly praised by John Burroughs,
who came over from America to hear the British songsters, his thoughts
running chiefly on the nightingale, blackcap, throstle, and blackbird;
and he was astonished to find that this unfamed warbler, about which
the ornithologists had said little and the poets nothing, was one of
the most delightful vocalists, and had a "delicious warble." He waxed
indignant at our neglect of such a singer, and cried out that it had
too fine a song to please the British ear; that a louder coarser voice
was needed to come up to John Bull's standard of a good song. No one
who loves a hearty laugh can feel hurt at his manner of expressing
himself, so characteristic of an American. Nevertheless, the fact
remains that only since Burroughs' appreciation of the British
song-birds first appeared, several years ago, the willow wren, which
he found languishing in obscurity, has had many to praise it. At all
events, the merits of its song are now much more freely acknowledged
than they were formerly.

Perhaps the wood wren's turn will come by and by. He is still an
obscure bird, little known, or not known, to most people: we are more
influenced by what the old writers have said than we know or like to
believe; our preferences have mostly been made for us. The species
which they praised and made famous have kept their places in popular
esteem, while other species equally charming, which they did not know
or said nothing about, are still but little regarded. It is hardly to
be doubted that the wood wren would have been thought more of if
Willughby, the Father of British Ornithology, had known it and
expressed a high opinion of its song; or that it would have had
millions to admire it if Chaucer or Shakespeare had singled it out for
a few words of praise.

It is also probably the fact that those who are not students, or close
observers of bird life, seldom know more than a very few of the most
common species; and that when they hear a note that pleases them they
set it down to one of the half-dozen or three or four songsters whose
names they remember. I met with an amusing instance of this common
mistake at a spot in the west of England, where I visited a castle on
a hill, and was shown over the beautiful but steep grounds by a stout
old dame, whose breath and temper were alike short. It was a bright
morning in May, and the birds were in full song. As we walked through
the shrubbery a blackcap burst into a torrent of wild heart-enlivening
melody from amidst the foliage not more than three yards away. "How
well that blackcap sings!" I remarked. "That blackbird," she
corrected; "yes, it sings well." She stuck to it that it was a
blackbird, and to prove that I was wrong assured me that there were no
blackcaps there. Finding that I refused to acknowledge myself in
error, she got cross and dropped into sullen silence; but ten or
fifteen minutes later she returned of her own accord to the subject.
"I've been thinking, sir," she said, "that you must be right. I said
there are no blackcaps here because I've been told so, but all the
same I've often remarked that the blackbird has two different songs.
Now I know, but I'm so sorry that I didn't know a few days sooner." I
asked her why. She replied, "The other day a young American lady came
to the castle and I took her over the grounds. The birds were singing
the same as to-day, and the young lady said, 'Now, I want you to tell
me which is the blackcap's song. Just think,' she said, 'what a
distance I have come, from America! Well, when I was bidding good-bye
to my friends at home I said, "Don't you envy me? I'm going to Old
England to hear the blackcap's song."' Well, when I told her we had no
blackcaps she was so disappointed; and yet, sir, if what you say is
right, the bird was singing near us all the time!"

Poor young lady from America! I should have liked to know whose
written words first fired her brain with desire of the blackcap's
song--a golden voice in imagination's ear, while the finest home
voices were merely silvern. I think of my own case; how in boyhood
this same bird first warbled to me in some lines of a poem I read; and
how, long years afterwards, I first heard the real song--beautiful,
but how unlike the song I had imagined!--one bright evening in early
May, at Netley Abbey. But the poet's name had meanwhile slipped out of
memory; nothing but a vague impression remained (and still persists)
that he flourished and had great fame about the beginning of the
nineteenth century, and that now his (or her) fame and works are
covered with oblivion.

To return to the subject of this paper: the wood wren--the secret of
its charm. We see that, tried by ordinary standards, many other
singers are its superiors; what, then, is the mysterious something in
its music that makes it to some of us even better than the best?
Speaking for myself, I should say because it is more harmonious, or in
more perfect accord with the nature amid which it is heard; it is the
truer woodland voice.

The chaffinch as a rule sings in open woods and orchards and groves
when there is light and life and movement; but sometimes in the heart
of a deep wood the silence is broken by its sudden loud lyric: it is
unexpected and sounds unfamiliar in such a scene; the wonderfully
joyous ringing notes are like a sudden flood of sunshine in a shady
place. The sound is intensely distinct and individual, in sharp
contrast to the low forest tones: its effect on the ear is similar to
that produced on the sight by a vivid contrast in colours, as by a
splendid scarlet or shining yellow flower blooming solitary where all
else is green. The effect produced by the wood wren is totally
different; the strain does not contrast with, but is complementary to,
the "tremulous cadence low" of inanimate nature in the high woods, of
wind-swayed branches and pattering of rain and lisping and murmuring
of innumerable leaves--the elemental sounds out of which it has been
fashioned. In a sense it may be called a trivial and a monotonous
song--the strain that is like a long tremulous cry, repeated again and
again without variation; but it is really beyond criticism--one would
have to begin by depreciating the music of the wind. It is a voice of
the beechen woods in summer, of the far-up cloud of green, translucent
leaves, with open spaces full of green shifting sunlight and shadow.
Though resonant and far-reaching it does not strike you as loud, but
rather as the diffused sound of the wind in the foliage concentrated
and made clear--a voice that has light and shade, rising and passing
like the wind, changing as it flows, and quivering like a
wind-fluttered leaf. It is on account of this harmony that it is not
trivial, and that the ear never grows tired of listening to it: sooner
would it tire of the nightingale--its purest, most brilliant tone and
most perfect artistry.

The continuous singing of a skylark at a vast height above the green,
billowy sun and shadow-swept earth is an etherealised sound which
fills the blue space, fills it and falls, and is part of that visible
nature above us, as if the blue sky, the floating clouds, the wind and
sunshine, has something for the hearing as well as for the sight. And
as the lark in its soaring song is of the sky, so the wood wren is of
the wood.



CHAPTER VI

THE SECRET OF THE WILLOW WREN


The willow wren is one of the commonest and undoubtedly the most
generally diffused of the British songsters. A summer visitor, one of
the earliest to arrive, usually appearing on the South Coast in the
last week in March; a little later he may be met with in very nearly
every wood, thicket, hedge, common, marsh, orchard, and large garden
throughout the kingdom--it is hard to say, writes Seebohm, where he is
not found. Wherever there are green perching-places, and small
caterpillars, flies and aphides to feed upon, there you will see and
hear the willow wren. He is a sweet and constant singer from the date
of his arrival until about the middle of June, when he becomes silent
for a season, resuming his song in July, and continuing it throughout
August and even into September. This late summer singing is, however,
fitful and weak and less joyous in character than in the spring. But
in spite of his abundance and universality, and the charm of his
little melody, he is not familiarly known to the people generally, as
they know the robin redbreast, pied wagtail, dunnock, redstart,
wheatear, and stonechat. The name we call him by is a very old one; it
was first used in English by Ray, in his translation of Willughby's
Ornithology, about three centuries ago; but it still remains a
book-name unknown to the rustic. Nor has this common little bird any
widely known vernacular name. If by chance you find a country-man who
knows the bird, and has a name for it, this will be one which is
applied indiscriminately to two, three, or four species. The willow
wren, in fact, is one of those little birds that are "seen rather than
distinguished," on account of its small size, modest colouring, and
its close resemblance to other species of warblers; also on account of
the quiet, gentle character of its song, which is little noticed in
the spring and summer concert of loud, familiar voices.

One day in London during the late summer I was amused and at the same
time a little disgusted at this general indifference to the delicate
beauty in a bird-sound which distinguishes the willow wren even among
such delicate singers as the warblers: it struck me as a kind of
æsthetic hardness of hearing. I heard the song in the flower walk, in
Kensington Gardens, on a Sunday morning, and sat down to listen to it;
and for half an hour the bird continued to repeat his song two or
three times a minute on the trees and bushes within half a dozen yards
of my seat. Just after I had sat down, a throstle, perched on the
topmost bough of a thorn that projected over the walk, began his song,
and continued it a long time, heedless of the people passing below.
Now, I noticed that in almost every case the person approaching lifted
his eyes to the bird above, apparently admiring the music, sometimes
even pausing for a moment in his walk; and that when two or three came
together they not only looked up, but made some remark about the
beauty of the song. But from first to last not one of all the
passers-by cast a look towards the tree where the willow wren was
singing; nor was there anything to show that the sound had any
attraction for them, although they must have heard it. The loudness of
the thrush prevented them from giving it any attention, and made it
practically inaudible. It was like a pimpernel blossoming by the side
of a poppy, or dahlia, or peony, where, even if seen, it would not be
noticed as a beautiful flower.

In the chapter on the wood wren, I endeavoured to trace to its source
the pleasurable feelings which the song of that bird produces in me and
in many others--a charm exceeding that of many more celebrated
vocalists. In that chapter the song of the willow wren was mentioned
incidentally. Now, these two--wood wren and willow wren--albeit nearly
related, are, in the character of their notes, as widely different as it
is possible for two songsters to be; and when we listen attentively to
both, we recognise that the feeling produced in us differs in each
case--that it has a different cause. In the case of the willow wren it
might be said off-hand that our pleasure is simply due to the fact that
it is a melodious sound, associated in our minds with summer scenes. As
much could be said of any other migrant's song--nightingale, tree-pipit,
blackcap, garden warbler, swallow, and a dozen more. But it does not
explain the individual and very special charm of this particular
bird--what I have ventured to call the secret of the willow wren. After
all, it is not a deeply hidden secret, and has indeed been half guessed
or hinted by various writers on bird melody; and as it also happens to
be the secret of other singers besides the willow wren, we may, I think,
find in it an explanation of the fact that the best singers do not
invariably please us so well as some that are considered inferior.

The song of the willow wren has been called singular and unique among
our birds; and Mr Warde Fowler, who has best described it, says that
it forms an almost perfect cadence, and adds, "by which I mean that it
descends gradually, not, of course, on the notes of our musical scale,
by which no birds in their natural state would deign to be fettered,
but through fractions of one or perhaps two of our tones, and without
returning upward at the end." Now, this arrangement of its notes,
although very rare and beautiful, does not give the little song its
highest æsthetic value. The secret of the charm, I imagine, is
traceable to the fact that there is distinctly something human-like in
the quality of the voice, its timbre. Many years ago an observer of
wild birds and listener to their songs came to this country, and
walking one day in a London suburb he heard a small bird singing among
the trees. The trees were in an enclosure and he could not see the
bird, but there would, he thought, be no difficulty in ascertaining
the species, since it would only be necessary to describe its peculiar
little song to his friends and they would tell him. Accordingly, on
his return to the house he proceeded to describe the song and ask the
name of the singer. No one could tell him, and much to his surprise,
his account of the melody was received with smiles of amusement and
incredulity. He described it as a song that was like a wonderfully
bright and delicate human voice talking or laughingly saying something
rather than singing. It was not until some time afterwards that the
bird-lover in a strange land discovered that his little talker and
laugher among the leaves was the willow wren. In vain he had turned to
the ornithological works; the song he had heard, or at all events the
song as he had heard it, was not described therein; and yet to this
day he cannot hear it differently--cannot dissociate the sound from
the idea of a fairy-like child with an exquisitely pure, bright,
spiritual voice laughingly speaking in some green place.

And yet Gilbert White over a century ago had noted the human quality
in the willow wren's voice when he described it as an "easy, joyous,
laughing note." It is still better to be able to quote Mr Warde
Fowler, when writing in A Year with the Birds, on the futile attempts
which are often made to represent birds' songs by means of our
notation, since birds are guided in their songs by no regular
succession of intervals. Speaking of the willow wren in this
connection, he adds: "Strange as it may seem, the songs of birds may
perhaps be more justly compared with the human voice when speaking,
than with a musical instrument, or with the human voice when singing."
The truth of this observation must strike any person who will pay
close attention to the singing of birds; but there are two criticisms
to be made on it. One is that the resemblance of a bird's song to a
human voice when speaking is confined to some or to a few species; the
second is that it is a mistake to think, as Mr Fowler appears to do,
that the resemblance is wholly or mainly due to the fact that the
bird's voice is free when singing--that, like the human voice in
talking, it is not tied to tones and semitones. For instance, we note
this peculiarity in the willow wren, but not in, say, the wren and
chaffinch, although the songs of these two are just as free, just as
independent of regular intervals as our voices when speaking and
laughing. The resemblance in a bird's song to human speech is entirely
due to the human-like quality in the voice; for we find that other
songsters--notably the swallow--have a charm similar to that of the
willow wren, although the notes of the former bird are differently
arranged, and do not form anything like a cadence. Again, take the
case of the blackbird. We are accustomed to describe the blackbird's
voice as flute-like, and the flute is one of the instruments which
most nearly resemble the human voice. Now, on account of the leisurely
manner in which the blackbird gives out his notes, the resemblance to
human speech is not so pronounced as in the case of the willow wren or
swallow; but when two or three or half a dozen blackbirds are heard
singing close together, as we sometimes hear them in woods and
orchards where they are abundant, the effect is singularly beautiful,
and gives the idea of a conversation being carried on by a set of
human beings of arboreal habits (not monkeys) with glorified voices.
Listening to these blackbird concerts, I have sometimes wondered
whether or not they produced the same effect on others' ears as on
mine, as of people talking to one another in high-pitched and
beautiful tones. Oddly enough, it was only while writing this chapter
that I by chance found an affirmative answer to my question. Glancing
through Leslie's Riverside Letters, which I had not previously seen, I
came upon the following remarks, quoted from Sir George Grove, in a
letter to the author, on the blackbird's singing: "He selects a spot
where he is within hearing of a comrade, and then he begins quite at
leisure (not all in a hurry like the thrush) a regular conversation.
'And how are you? Isn't this a fine day? Let us have a nice talk,'
etc., etc. He is answered in the same strain, and then replies, and so
on. Nothing more thoughtful, more refined, more feeling, can be
conceived." In another passage he writes: "I love them (the robins),
but they fill a much smaller part than the blackbird does in my heart.
To hear the blackbird talking to his mate a field off, with
deliberate, refined conversation, the very acme of grace and courtesy,
is perfectly splendid."

There are two more common British songsters that produce much the same
effect as the willow wren and blackbird; these are the swallow and
pied wagtail. They are not in the first rank as melodists, and I can
find no explanation of the fact that they please me better than the
great singers other than their more human-like tones, which to my
hearing have something of an exceedingly beautiful contralto sound.
The swallow's song is familiar to every one, but that of the wagtail
is not well known. The bird has two distinct songs: one, heard
oftenest in early spring, consists of a low rambling warble, with some
resemblance to the whinchat's song; it is the second song, heard
occasionally until late June, frequently uttered on the wing--a
torrent of loud, rapidly uttered, and somewhat swallow-like
notes--that comes nearest in tone to the human voice, and has the
greatest charm.

After these, we find other songsters with one or two notes, or a
phrase, human-like in quality, in their songs. Of these I will only
mention the blackcap, linnet, and tree-pipit. The most beautiful of
the blackcap's notes, which come nearest to the blackbird, have this
human sound; and certainly the most beautiful part of the linnet's
song is the opening phrase, composed of notes that are both
swallow-like and human-like.

It may appear strange to some readers that I put the tree-pipit, with
his thin, shrill, canary-like pipe, in this list; but his notes are
not all of this character; he is moreover a most variable singer; and
it happens that in some individuals the concluding notes of the song
have more of that peculiar human quality than any other British
songster. No doubt it was a bird in which these human-like,
languishing notes at the close of the song were very full and
beautiful that inspired Burns to write his "Address to a Wood-lark."
The tree pipit is often called by that name in Scotland, where the
true wood-lark is not found.

   O stay, sweet warbling wood-lark, stay,
   Nor quit for me the trembling spray,
   A hopeless lover courts thy lay,
       Thy soothing, fond complaining.

   Again, again that tender part,
   That I may catch thy melting art;
   For surely that would touch her heart
       Who kills me wi' disdaining.

   Say, was thy little mate unkind,
   And heard thee as the passing wind?
   O nocht but love and sorrow joined
       Sic notes o' wae could waken!

   Thou tells o' never-ceasing care,
   O' speechless grief and dark despair;
   For pity's sake, sweet bird, nae mair,
       Or my poor heart is broken!

Much more could be said about these and other species in the passerine
order that have some resemblance, distinct or faint, to the human
voice in their singing notes--an echo, as it were, of our own common
emotions, in most cases simply glad or joyous, but sometimes, as in
the case of the tree-pipit, of another character. And even those
species that are furthest removed from us in the character of the
sounds they emit have some notes that suggest a highly brightened
human voice. Witness the throstle and nightingale. The last approaches
to the human voice in that rich, musical throb, repeated many times
with passion, which is the invariable prelude to his song; and again,
in that "one low piping note, more sweet than all," four times
repeated in a wonderfully beautiful crescendo. Who that ever listened
to Carlotta Patti does not remember sounds like these from her lips?
It was commonly said of her that her voice was bird-like; certainly it
was clarified and brightened beyond other voices--in some of her notes
almost beyond recognition as a human voice. It was a voice that had a
great deal of the quality of gladness in it, but less depth of human
passion than other great singers. Still, it was a human voice; and,
just as Carlotta Patti (outshining the best of her sister-singers even
as the diamond outsparkles all other gems) rose to the birds in her
miraculous flights, so do some of the birds come down to and resemble
us in their songs.

If I am right in thinking that it is the human note in the voices of
some passerine birds that gives a peculiar and very great charm to
their songs, so that an inferior singer shall please us more than one
that ranks high, according to the accepted standard, it remains to ask
why it should be so. Why, I mean, should the mere likeness to a human
tone in a little singing-bird impart so great a pleasure to the mind,
when the undoubtedly human-like voices of many non-passerine species
do not as a rule affect us in the same way? As a matter of fact, we
find in the multitude of species that resemble us in their voices a
few, outside of the order of singers, that do give us a pleasure
similar to that imparted by the willow wren, swallow, and tree-pipit.
Thus, among British birds we have the wood-pigeon, and the stock-dove;
the green woodpecker, with his laugh-like cry; the cuckoo, a universal
favourite on account of his double fluty call; and (to those who are
not inclined to be superstitious) the wood-owl, a most musical
night-singer; and the curlew, with, in a less degree, various other
shore birds. But in a majority of the larger birds of all orders the
effect produced is different, and often the reverse of pleasant. Or if
such sounds delight us, the feeling differs in character from that
produced by the melodious singer, and is mainly due to that wildness
with which we are in sympathy expressed by such sounds. Human-like
voices are found among the auks, loons, and grebes; eagles and
falcons; cuckoos, pigeons, goatsuckers, owls, crows, rails, ducks,
waders, and gallinaceous birds. The cries and shrieks of some among
these, particularly when heard in the dark hours, in deep woods and
marshes and other solitary places, profoundly impress and even startle
the mind, and have given rise all the world over to numberless
superstitious beliefs. Such sounds are supposed to proceed from
devils, or from demons inhabiting woods and waters and all desert
places; from night-wandering witches; spirits sent to prophesy death
or disaster; ghosts of dead men and women wandering by night about the
world in search of a way out of it; and sometimes human beings who,
burdened with dreadful crimes or irremediable griefs, have been
changed into birds. The three British species best known on account of
their supernatural character have very remarkable voices with a human
sound in them: the raven with his angry, barking cry, and deep, solemn
croak; the booming bittern; and the white or church owl, with his
funereal screech.

It is, I think, plain that the various sensations excited in us by the
cries, moans, screams, and the more or less musical notes of different
species, are due to the human emotions which they express or seem to
express. If the voice simulates that of a maniac, or of a being
tortured in body or mind, or overcome with grief, or maddened with
terror, the blood-curdling and other sensations proper to the occasion
will be experienced; only, if we are familiar with the sound or know
its cause, the sensation will be weak. Similarly, if in some deep,
silent wood we are suddenly startled by a loud human whistle or
shouted "Hi!" although we may know that a bird, somewhere in that
waste of foliage around us, uttered the shout, we yet cannot help
experiencing the feelings--a combination of curiosity, amusement, and
irritation--which we should have if some friend or some human being
had hailed us while purposely keeping out of sight. Finally, if the
bird-sounds resemble refined, bright, and highly musical human voices,
the voices, let us say, of young girls in conversation, expressive of
various beautiful qualities--sympathy, tenderness, innocent mirth, and
overflowing gladness of heart--the effect will be in the highest
degree delightful.

Herbert Spencer, in his account of the origin of our love of music in
his Psychology, writes: "While the tones of anger and authority are
harsh and coarse, the tones of sympathy and refinement are relatively
gentle and of agreeable timbre. That is to say, the timbre is
associated in experience with the receipt of gratification, has
acquired a pleasure-giving quality, and consequently the tones which
in music have an allied timbre become pleasure-giving and are called
beautiful. Not that this is the sole cause of their pleasure-giving
quality.... Still, in recalling the tones of instruments which
approach the tones of the human voice, and observing that they seem
beautiful in proportion to their approach, we see that this secondary
æsthetic element is important."

As with instruments, so it is with bird voices; in proportion as they
approach the tones of the human voice, expressive of sympathy,
refinement, and other beautiful qualities, they will seem
beautiful--in some cases even more beautiful than those which, however
high they may rank in other ways, are yet without this secondary
æsthetic element.



CHAPTER VII

SECRET OF THE CHARM OF FLOWERS


When my mind was occupied with the subject of the last chapter--the
human quality in some sweet bird voices--it struck me forcibly that
all resemblances to man in the animal and vegetable worlds and in
inanimate nature, enter largely into and strongly colour our æsthetic
feelings. We have but to listen to the human tones in wind and water,
and in animal voices; and to recognise the human shape in plant, and
rock, and cloud, and in the round heads of certain mammals, like the
seal; and the human expression in the eyes, and faces generally, of
many mammals, birds and reptiles, to know that these casual
resemblances are a great deal to us. They constitute the expression of
numberless natural sights and sounds with which we are familiar,
although in a majority of cases the resemblance being but slight, and
to some one quality only, we are not conscious of the cause of the
expression.

It was principally with flowers, which excite more attention and give
more pleasure than most natural objects, that my mind was occupied in
this connection; for here it seemed to me that the effect was similar
to that produced on the mind by sweet human-like tones in bird music.
In other words, a very great if not the principal charm of the flower
was to be traced to the human associations of its colouring; and this
was, in some cases, more than all its other attractions, including
beauty of form, purity and brilliance of colour, and the harmonious
arrangement of colours; and, finally, fragrance, where such a quality
existed.

We see, then, that there is an intimate connection between the two
subjects--human associations in the colouring of flowers and in the
voices of birds; and that in both cases this association constitutes,
or is a principal element in, the expression. This connection, and the
fact that the present subject was suggested and appeared almost an
inevitable outcome of the one last discussed, must be my excuse for
introducing a chapter on flowers in a book on birds--or birds and man.
But an excuse is hardly needed. It must strike most readers that a
great fault of books on birds is, that there is too much about birds
in them, consequently that a chapter about something else, which has
not exactly been dragged in, may come as a positive relief.

As the word expression which occurs with frequency in this chapter was
not understood in the sense in which I used it on the first appearance
of the book, it may be well to explain that it is not used here in its
ordinary meaning as the quality in a face, or picture, or any work of
art, which indicates thought or feeling. Here the word has the meaning
given to it by writers on the æsthetic sense as descriptive of the
quality imparted to an object by its associations. These may be
untraceable: we may not be conscious and as a rule we are not
conscious that any such associations exist; nevertheless they are in
us all the time, and with what they add to an object may enhance and
even double its intrinsic beauty and charm.

       *       *       *       *       *

I have somewhere read a very ancient legend, which tells that man was
originally made of many materials, and that at the last a bunch of
wild flowers was gathered and thrown into the mixture to give colour
to his eyes. It is a pretty story, but might have been better told,
since it is certain that flowers which have delicate and beautiful
flesh-tints are attractive mainly on that account, just as blue and
some purples delight us chiefly because of their associations with the
human iris. The skin, too, needed some beautiful colour, and there
were red as well as blue flowers in the bunch; and the red flowers
being most abundant in nature and in greater variety of tints, give us
altogether more pleasure than their beautiful rivals in our affection.

The blue flower is associated, consciously or not, with the human blue
eye; and as the floral blue is in all or nearly all instances pure and
beautiful, it is like the most beautiful human eye. This association,
and not the colour itself, strikes me as the true cause of the
superior attraction which the blue flower has for most of us. Apart
from association blue is less attractive than red, orange, and yellow,
because less luminous; furthermore green is the least effective
background for such a colour as blue in so small an object as a
flower; and, as a fact, we see that at a little distance the blue of
the flower is absorbed and disappears in the surrounding green, while
reds and yellows keep their splendour. Nevertheless the blue has a
stronger hold on our affections. As a human colour, blue comes first
in a blue-eyed race because it is the colour of the most important
feature, and, we may say, of the very soul in man.

Some purple flowers stand next in our regard on account of their
nearness in colour to the pure blue. The wild hyacinth, blue-bottle,
violet, and pansy, and some others, will occur to every one. These are
the purple flowers in which blue predominates, and on that account
have the same expression as the blue. The purples in which red
predominates are akin in expression to the reds, and are associated
with flesh-tints and blood. And here it may be noted that the blue and
blue-purple flowers, which have the greatest charm for us, are those
in which not only the colour of the eye but some resemblance in their
form to the iris, with its central spot representing the pupil,
appears. For example, the flax, borage, blue geranium, periwinkle,
forget-me-not, speedwell, pansy and blue pimpernel, are actually more
to us than some larger and handsomer blue flowers, such as the
blue-bottle, vipers' bugloss, and succory, and of blue flowers seen in
masses.

With regard to the numerous blue and purple-blue flowers which we all
admire, or rather for which we all feel so great an affection, we find
that in many cases their very names have been suggested by their human
associations--by their expression.

Love-in-a-mist, angels' eyes, forget-me-not, and heartsease, are
familiar examples. Heartsease and pansy both strike us as peculiarly
appropriate to one of our commonest and most universal garden flowers;
yet we see something besides the sympathetic and restful expression
which suggested these names in this flower--a certain suggestion of
demureness, in fact, reminding those who have seen Guido's picture of
the "Adoration of the Virgin," of one of his loveliest angels whose
angelical eyes and face reveal some desire for admiration and love in
the spectator. And that expression, too, of the pansy named
Love-in-Idleness, has been described, coarsely or rudely it may be, in
some of its country names: "Kiss me behind the garden gate," and,
better (or worse) still, "Meet-her-i'-th'-entry-kiss-her-i'-th'-buttery."
Of this order of names are None-so-pretty and Pretty maids, Pretty
Betsy, Kiss-me-quick. Even such a name as Tears of the blood of Christ
does not sound extravagantly fanciful or startling when we look at the
glowing deep golden crimson of the wall flower; nor of a blue flower,
the germander speedwell, such names as The more I see you the more I
love you, and Angels' tears, and Tears of Christ, with many more.

A writer on our wild flowers, in speaking of their vernacular names of
this kind, has said: "Could we penetrate to the original suggestive
idea that called forth its name, it would bring valuable information
about the first openings of the human mind towards nature; and the
merest dream of such a discovery invests with a strange charm the
words that could tell, if we could understand, so much of the
forgotten infancy of the human race."

What a roll of words and what a mighty and mysterious business is here
made of a very simple little matter! It is a charming example of the
strange helplessness, not to say imbecility, which affects most of
those who have been trained in our mind-killing schools; trained not
to think, but taught to go for anything and everything they desire to
know to the books. If the books in the British Museum fail to say why
our ancestors hundreds of years ago named a flower None-so-pretty or
Love-in-a-mist, why then we must be satisfied to sit in thick darkness
with regard to this matter until some heaven-born genius descends to
illuminate us! Yet I daresay there is not a country child who does not
occasionally invent a name for some plant or creature which has
attracted his attention; and in many cases the child's new name is
suggested by some human association in the object--some resemblance to
be seen in form or colour or sound. Not books but the light of nature,
the experience of our own early years, the look which no person not
blinded by reading can fail to see in a flower, is sufficient to
reveal all this hidden wonderful knowledge about the first openings of
the heart towards nature, during the remote infancy of the human race.

From this it will be seen that I am not claiming a discovery; that
what I have called a secret of the charm of flowers is a secret known
to every man, woman, and child, even to those of my own friends who
stoutly deny that they have any such knowledge. But I think it is best
known to children. What I am here doing is merely to bring together
and put in form certain more or less vague thoughts and feelings which
I (and therefore all of us) have about flowers; and it is a small
matter, but it happens to be one which no person has hitherto
attempted.

It may be that in some of my readers' minds--those who, like the
sceptical friends I have mentioned, are not distinctly conscious of
the cause or secret of the expression of a flower--some doubt may
still remain after what has been said of the blue and purple-blue
blossom. Such a doubt ought to disappear when the reds are considered,
and when it is found that the expression peculiar to red flowers
varies infinitely in degree, and is always greatest in those shades of
the colour which come nearest to the most beautiful flesh-tints.

When I say "beautiful flesh-tints" I am thinking of the æsthetic
pleasure which we receive from the expression, the associations, of
the red flower. The expression which delights is in the soft and
delicate shades; and in the texture which is sometimes like the
beautiful soft skin; but the expression would exist still in the case
of floral tints resembling the unpleasant reds, or the reds which
disgust us, in the human face. And we most of us know that these
distressing hues are to be seen in some flowers. I remember that I
once went into a florist's shop, and seeing a great mass of hard
purple-red cinerarias on a shelf I made some remark about them. "Yes,
are they not beautiful?" said the woman in the shop. "No, I loathe the
sight of them," I returned. "So do I!" she said very quickly, and then
added that she called them beautiful because she had to sell them.
She, too, had no doubt seen that same purple-red colour in the evil
flower called "grog-blossom," and in the faces of many middle-aged
lovers of the bottle, male and female, who would perish before their
time, to the great relief of their kindred, and whose actions after
they were gone would not smell sweet and blossom in the dust.

The reds we like best in flowers are the delicate roseate and pinky
shades; they are more to us than the purest and most luminous tints.
And here, as with bird notes which delight us on account of their
resemblance to fresh, young, highly musical human voices, flowers
please us best when they exhibit the loveliest human tints--the apple
blossom and the bindweed, musk mallow and almond and wild rose, for
example. After these we are most taken with the deeper but soft and
not too luminous reds--the red which we admire in the red
horse-chestnut blossom, and many other flowers, down to the minute
pimpernel. Next come the intense rosy reds seen in the herb-robert and
other wild geraniums, valerian, red campion and ragged robin; and this
shade of red, intensified but still soft, is seen in the willow-herb
and foxglove, and, still more intensified, in the bell- and
small-leafed heath. Some if not all of these pleasing reds have purple
in them, and there are very many distinctly purple flowers that appeal
to us in the same way that red flowers do, receiving their expression
from the same cause. There is some purple colour in most skins, and
even some blue.

   The azured harebell, like thy veins,

is a familiar verse from Cymbeline; any one can see the resemblance to
the pale blue of that admired and loved blossom in the blue veins of
any person with a delicate skin. Purples and purplish reds in masses
are mostly seen in young persons of delicate skins and high colour in
frosty weather in winter, when the eyes sparkle and the face glows
with the happy sensations natural to the young and healthy during and
after outdoor exercise. The skin purples and purple-reds here
described are beautiful, and may be matched to a nicety in many
flowers; the human purple may be seen (to name a very common wild
flower) in purple loosestrife and the large marsh mallow, and in
dozens and scores of other familiar purple flowers; and the purple-red
hue in many richly coloured skins has its exact shade in common
hounds' tongue, and in other dark and purple-red flowers. But we
always find, I fancy, that the expression due to human association in
a purple flower is greatest when this colour (as in the human face) is
placed side by side or fades into some shade of red or pink. I think
we may see this even in a small flower like the fumitory, in which one
portion is deep purple and all the rest of the blossoms a delicate
pink. Even when the red is very intense, as in the common field poppy,
the pleasing expression of purple on red is very evident.

To return to pure reds. We may say that just as purples in flowers
look best, or have a greater degree of expression, when appearing in
or with reds, so do the most delicate rose and pink shades appeal most
to us when they appear as a tinge or blush on white flowers. Probably
the flower that gives the most pleasure on account of its beautiful
flesh-tints of different shades is the Gloire de Dîjon rose, so common
with us and so universal a favourite. Roses, being mostly of the
garden, are out of my line, but they are certainly glorious to look
at--glorious because of their associations, their expression, whether
we know it or not. One can forgive Thomas Carew the conceit in his
lines--

   Ask me no more where Jove bestows
   When June is past, the fading rose,
   For in your beauty's orient deep
   These flowers as in their causes sleep.

But all reds have something human, even the most luminous scarlets and
crimsons--the scarlet verbena, the poppy, our garden geraniums,
etc.--although in intensity they so greatly surpass the brightest colour
of the lips and the most vivid blush on the cheek. Luminous reds are
not, however, confined to lips and cheeks: even the fingers when held up
before the eyes to the sun or to firelight show a very delicate and
beautiful red; and this same brilliant floral hue is seen at times in
the membrane of the ear. It is, in fact, the colour of blood, and that
bright fluid, which is the life, and is often spilt, comes very much
into the human associations of flowers. The Persian poet, whose name is
best left unwritten, since from hearing it too often most persons are
now sick and tired of it, has said,

   I sometimes think that never blooms so red
   The rose as where some buried Cæsar bled.

There is many and many a "plant of the blood of men." Our most common
Love-lies-bleeding with its "dropping wells" of crimson serves to
remind us that there are numberless vulgar names that express this
resemblance and association. The thought or fancy is found everywhere
in poetic literature, in the fables of antiquity, in the tales and
folk-lore of all nations, civilised and barbarous.

I think that we can more quickly recognise this human interest in a
flower, due to its colour, and best appreciate its æsthetic value from
this cause, when we turn from the blues, purples, and reds, to the
whites and the yellows. The feeling these last give us is distinctly
different in character from that produced by the others. They are not
like us, nor like any living sentient thing we are related to: there
is no kinship, no human quality.

When I say "no kinship, no human quality," I refer to flowers that are
entirely pure white or pure yellow; in some dull or impure yellows,
and in white and yellow flowers that have some tinge or mixture of red
or purple, we do get the expression of the red and purple flower. The
crystalline and snow white of the whitest flowers do indeed resemble
the white of the eyeballs and the teeth in human faces; but we may see
that this human white colour by itself has no human association in a
flower.

The whiteness of the white flower where there is any red is never
unhuman, probably because a very brilliant red or rose colour on some
delicate skins causes the light flesh-tints to appear white by
contrast, and is the complexion known as "milk and roses." The
apple-blossom is a beautiful example, and the beloved daisy--the "wee,
modest, crimson-tipped flower," which would be so much less dear but
for that touch of human crimson. This is the herb-Margaret of so many
tender and pretty legends, that has white for purity and red for
repentance. Even those who have never read these legends and that
prettiest, most pathetic of all which tells of the daisy's origin,
find a secret charm in the flower. Among other common examples are the
rosy-white hawthorn, wood anemone, bindweed, dropwort, and many
others. In the dropwort the rosy buds are seen among the creamy white
open flowers; and the expression is always very marked and beautiful
when there is any red or purple tinge or blush on cream-whites and
ivory-whites. When we look from the dropwort to its nearest relative,
the common meadow-sweet, we see how great a charm the touch of
rose-red has given to the first: the meadow-sweet has no expression of
the kind we are considering--no human association.

In pure yellow flowers, as in pure white, human interest is wanting.
It is true that yellow is a human colour, since in the hair we find
yellows of different shades--it is a pity that we cannot find, or have
not found, a better word than "shades" for the specific differences of
a colour. There is the so-called tow, the tawny, the bronze, the
simple yellow, and the golden, which includes many varieties, and the
hair called carroty. But none of these has the flower yellow. Richard
Jefferies tells us that when he placed a sovereign by the side of a
dandelion he saw how unlike the two colours were--that, in fact, no
two colours could seem more unlike than the yellow of gold and the
yellow of the flower. It is not necessary to set a lock of hair and
any yellow flower side by side to know how utterly different the hues
are. The yellow of the hair is like that of metals, of clay, of stone,
and of various earthy substances, and like the fur of some mammals,
and like xanthophyll in leaf and stalk, and the yellow sometimes seen
in clouds. When Ossian, in his famous address to the sun, speaks of
his yellow hair floating on the eastern clouds, we instantly feel the
truth as well as beauty of the simile. We admire the yellow flower for
the purity and brilliance of its colour, just as we admire some bird
notes solely for the purity and brightness of the sound, however
unlike the human voice they may be. We also admire it in many
instances for the exquisite beauty of its form, and the beauty of the
contrast of pure yellow and deep green, as in the yellow flag,
mimulus, and numerous other plants. But however much we may admire, we
do not experience that intimate and tender feeling which the blues and
reds inspire in us; in other words, the yellow flower has not the
expression which distinguishes those of other colours. Thus, when
Tennyson speaks of the "speedwell's darling blue," we know that he is
right--that he expresses a feeling about this flower common to all of
us; but no poet would make so great, so absurd a mistake as to
describe the purest and loveliest yellow of the most prized and
familiar wild flower--buttercup or kingcup, yellow flag, sea poppy,
marsh marigold, or broom, or furze, or rock-rose, let us say--by such
a word--the word that denotes an intimate and affectionate
feeling--the feeling one cherishes for the loved ones of our kind. Nor
could that word of Tennyson be properly used of any pure white
flower--the stitchwort for instance; nor of any white and yellow
flower like the Marguerite. But no sooner do you get a touch of rose
or crimson in the whitest flower, as we see in the daisy and
eyebright, than you can say of it that it is a "dear" or a "darling"
colour, and no one can find fault with the expression.

When we consider the dull and impure yellows sometimes seen in
flowers, and some soft yellows seen in combination with pleasing
wholesome reds, as in the honeysuckle, we may find something of the
expression--the human association--in yellow flowers. For there is
yellow in the skin, even in perfect health; it appears strongest on
the neck, and spread round to the throat and chin, and is a warm buff,
very beautiful in some women; but very little of this tint appears in
the face. When a tinge of this warm buffy yellow and creamy yellow is
seen mixed with warmer reds, as in the Gloire de Dîjon rose, the
effect is most beautiful and the expression most marked. But the
expression in flowers of a pale dull, impure yellow, where there is an
expression, is unpleasant. It is the yellow of unhealthy skins, of
faces discoloured by jaundice, dyspepsia, and other ailments. We
commonly say of such flowers that they are "sickly" in colour, and the
association is with sick and decaying humanity. Gerarde, in describing
such hues in flowers, was fond of the word "overworn"; and it was a
very good word, and, like the one now in use, is derived from the
association.

It will be noted by those who are acquainted with many flowers that I
have given the names of but few--it may be too few--as examples, and
that these are nearly all of familiar wild flowers. My reason for not
going to the garden is, that our cultivated blooms are not only
artificially produced, and in some degree monstrosities, but they are
seen in unnatural conditions, in crowds and masses, the various kinds
too near together, and in most cases selected on account of their
gorgeous colouring. The effect produced, however delightful it may be
in some ways, is confusing to those simple natural feelings which
flowers in a state of nature cause in us.

I confess that gardens in most cases affect me disagreeably; hence I
avoid them, and think and know little about garden flowers. It is of
course impossible not to go into gardens. The large garden is the
greatly valued annexe of the large house, and is as much or more to
the mistress than the coverts to the master; and when I am asked to go
into the garden to see and admire all that is there, I cannot say,
"Madam, I hate gardens." On the contrary, I must weakly comply and
pretend to be pleased. And when going the rounds of her paradise my
eyes light by chance on a bed of tulips, or scarlet geraniums, or blue
larkspurs, or detested calceolarias or cinerarias--a great patch of
coloured flame springing out of a square or round bed of grassless,
brown, desolate earth--the effect is more than disagreeable: the mass
of colour glares at and takes possession of me, and spreads itself
over and blots out a hundred delicate and prized images of things seen
that existed in the mind.

But I am going too far, and perhaps making an enemy of a reader when I
would much prefer to have him (or her) for a friend.

I have named few flowers, and those all the most familiar kinds,
because it seemed to me that many examples would have had a confusing
effect on readers who do not intimately know many species, or do not
remember the exact colour in each case, and are therefore unable to
reproduce in their minds the exact expression--the feeling which every
flower conveys. On the other hand, the reader who knows and loves
flowers, who has in his mind the distinct images of many scores,
perhaps of two or three hundreds of species, can add to my example
many more from his own memory.

There is one objection to the explanation given here of the cause of
the charm of certain flowers, which will instantly occur to some
readers, and may as well be answered in advance. This view, or theory,
must be wrong, a reader will perhaps say, because my own preference is
for a yellow flower (the primrose or daffodil, let us say), which to
me has a beauty and charm exceeding all other flowers.

The obvious explanation of such a preference would be that the
particular flower preferred is intimately associated with
recollections of a happy childhood, or of early life. The associations
will have made it a flower among flowers, charged with a subtle magic,
so that the mere sight or smell of it calls up beautiful visions
before the mind's eye. Every person bred in a country place is
affected in this way by certain natural objects and odours; and I
recall the case of Cuvier, who was always affected to tears by the
sight of some common yellow flower, the name of which I have
forgotten.

The way to test the theory is to take, or think of, two or three or
half-a-dozen flowers that have no personal associations with one's own
early life--that are not, like the primrose and daffodil in the
foregoing instance, sacred flowers, unlike all others; some with and
some without human colouring, and consider the feeling produced in
each case on the mind. If any one will look at, say, a Gloire de Dîjon
rose (in some persons its mental image will serve as well as the
object itself) and then at a perfect white chrysanthemum, or lily, or
other beautiful white flower; then at a perfect yellow chrysanthemum,
or an allamanda, and at any exquisitely beautiful orchid, that has no
human colour in it, which he may be acquainted with, he will probably
say: I admire these chrysanthemums and other flowers more than the
rose; they are most perfect in their beauty--I cannot imagine anything
more beautiful; but though the rose is less beautiful and splendid,
the admiration I have for it appears to differ somewhat in
character--to be mixed with some new element which makes this flower
actually more to me than the others.

That something different, and something more, is the human association
which this flower has for us in virtue of its colour; and the new
element--the feeling it inspires, which has something of tenderness
and affection in it--is one and the same with the feeling which we
have for human beauty.

       *       *       *       *       *

The foregoing has been given here with a few alterations,
mainly verbal, as it appeared originally: something now remains to
be added.

When writing about the wild flowers of West Cornwall in a work on
The Land's End (1908), I returned to the subject of the charm of
flowers due to their human colouring, and will repeat here much of
what was there said.

Some of the readers of my flower chapter were not convinced that I had
made out my case: it came as a surprise to them, and in some instances
they cherished views of their own which they did not want to give up.
Thus, two of my critics, writing independently, expressed their belief
that flowers are precious to us and seem more beautiful than they are,
because they are absolutely unrelated to our human life with its
passions, sorrows, and tragedies--because, looking at flowers, we are
taken into, or have glimpses of, another and brighter world such as a
disembodied spirit might find itself in. It was nothing more than a
pretty fancy; but I had other more thoughtful critics, and during my
correspondence with them I became convinced of a serious omission in
my account of the blue flower, when I said that its expression was due
to association with the blue eye in man. The strongest of my friendly
adversaries informed me that any man can revel at will among his own
personal feelings and associations; that these were a "kind of bloom
on the intrinsic beauty of things"--a happy phrase! He then asks:
"What does blue suggest to a sailor? Sometimes the sea, sometimes the
sky, sometimes the Blue Peter; but if you ask him what does blue paint
suggest he would say mourning, that being the colour of a ship's
mourning. Dr Sutton always called blue no colour, because it was the
colour of death, the sign of the withdrawal of life."

This was interesting but fails as an argument since it was taken
for granted in the chapter that blue in a flower or anything else,
and in fact any colour, possesses individual associations for
every one of us, according to what we are, to the temper of our
minds, to the conditions in which we exist, our vocation, our
early life, and so on. Blue may suggest sea and sky and the Blue
Peter to a sailor, and yet the blue flower have an expression due
to its human association in him as in another.

But my critic dropped by chance into something better, when he
went on to ask, "Why shouldn't the heaven's blue make us love
flowers? It does in my case I know, and I can feel the different
blues of skies and air and distance in flower blue."

Undoubtedly he was right; the blue sky, fair weather, the open air,
was a suggestion of the blue flower. It amazed me to think of the
years I had spent under blue skies and of all I had felt about blue
flowers, without stumbling upon this very simple fact. So simple, so
near to the surface that you no sooner hear it than you imagine you
have always known it! It was impossible to look at blue flowers and
not be convinced of its truth, especially when the flowers were spread
over considerable areas, as when I looked at wild hyacinths in the
spring woods, or followed the interminable blue band of the vernal
squill on the west Cornish coast, or saw large arid tracts of land in
Suffolk blue with viper's bugloss.

Oddly enough just after the letter containing this criticism had
reached me, another correspondent who was also among my opponents,
sent me this fine passage from the old writer Sir John Ferne, on azure
in blazoning: "Which blew colour representeth the Aire amongst the
elements, that of all the rest is the greatest favourer of life, as
the only nurse and maintainer of spirits in any living creature. The
colour blew is commonly taken from the blue skye which appeareth so
often as the tempests be overblowne, and notes prosperous successe and
good fortune to the wearer in all his affayres."

In conclusion, after having adopted this new idea, my view is still
that the human association is the principal factor in the expression
of the blue flower, or at all events in a majority of flowers that
bloom more or less sparingly and are usually seen as single blooms,
not as mere splashes of colour. Such are the pansy, violet, speedwell,
hairbell, lungwort, blue geranium, etc. It may be that in all flowers
of this kind too an element in the expression is due to the
fair-weather associations with the colour; but these associations must
be very much stronger in the case of a blue flower always seen in
masses and sheets of colour as the wild hyacinth. Among dark-eyed
races the fair-weather associations would alone give the blue flower
its expression. I shouldn't wonder, if some explorer with a curious
mind would try to find out what savages feel about flowers, that he
would discover in them a special regard for the blue flower.



CHAPTER VIII

RAVENS IN SOMERSET


Mr Warde Fowler in his Summer Studies of Birds and Books has a
pleasant chapter on wagtails, in which he remarks incidentally that he
does not care for the big solemn birds that please, or are dear to,
"Mr Hudson." Their bigness disturbs and their solemnity oppresses him.
They do not twitter and warble, and flit hither and thither, flirting
their feathers, and with their dainty gracefulness and airy, fairy
ways wind themselves round his heart. Wagtails are quite big enough
for him; they are, in fact, as big as birds should be, and so long as
these charming little creatures abound in these islands he (Mr Fowler)
will be content. Indeed, he goes so far as to declare that on a desert
island, without a human creature to share its solitude with him, he
would be happy enough if only wagtails were there to keep him company.
Mr Fowler is not joking; he tells us frankly what he thinks and feels,
and when we come to consider the matter seriously, as he wishes us to
do, we discover that there is nothing astonishing in his
confession--that his mental attitude is capable of being explained. It
is only natural, in an England from which most of the larger birds
have been banished, that he should have become absorbed in observing
and in admiration of the small species that remain; for we observe and
study the life that is nearest to us, and seeing it well we are
impressed by its perfection--the perfect correspondence that exists
between the creature and its surroundings--by its beauty, grace, and
other attractive qualities, as we are not impressed by the life which
is at a distance, and of which we only obtain rare and partial
glimpses.

These thoughts passed through my mind one cold, windy day in spring,
several hours of which I spent lying on the short grass on the summit
of a cliff, watching at intervals a pair of ravens that had their nest
on a ledge of rock some distance below. Big and solemn, and solemn and
big, they certainly were, and although inferior in this respect to
eagle, pelican, bustard, crane, vulture, heron, stork, and many
another feathered notable, to see them was at the same time a pleasure
and a relief. It also occurred to me at the time that, alone on a
desert island, I should be better off with ravens than wagtails for
companions; and this for an excellent reason. The wagtail is no doubt
a very lively, pretty, engaging creature--so for that matter is the
house fly--but between ourselves and the small birds there exists,
psychologically, a vast gulf. Birds, says Matthew Arnold, live beside
us, but unknown, and try how we will we can find no passages from our
souls to theirs. But to Arnold--in the poem to which I have alluded at
all events--a bird simply meant a caged canary; he was not thinking of
the larger, more mammal-like, and therefore more human-like, mind of
the raven, and, it may be added, of the crows generally.

The pair I spent so long a time in watching were greatly disturbed at
my presence on the cliff. Their anxiety was not strange, seeing that
their nest is annually plundered in the interest of the "cursed
collector," as Sir Herbert Maxwell has taught us to name the worst
enemy of the rarer British birds. The "worst," I say; but there is
another almost if not quite as bad, and who in the case of some
species is really worse. At intervals of from fifteen to twenty
minutes they would appear overhead uttering their angry, deep croak,
and, with wings outspread, seemingly without an effort on their parts
allow the wind to lift them higher and higher until they would look no
bigger than daws; and, after dwelling for a couple of minutes on the
air at that great height, they would descend to the earth again, to
disappear behind a neighbouring cliff. And on each occasion they
exhibited that wonderful aërial feat, characteristic of the raven, and
rare among birds, of coming down in a series of long drops with closed
wings. I am inclined to think that a strong wind is necessary for the
performance of this feat, enabling the bird to fall obliquely, and to
arrest the fall at any moment by merely throwing out the wings. At any
rate, it is a fact that I have never seen this method of descent used
by the bird in calm weather. It is totally different to the tumbling
down, as if wounded, of ravens when two or more are seen toying with
each other in the air--a performance which is also practised by rooks
and other species of the crow family. The tumbling feat is indulged in
only when the birds are playing, and, as it would appear, solely for
the fun of the thing; the feat I am describing has a use, as it
enables the bird to come down from a great height in the air in the
shortest time and with the least expenditure of force possible. With
the vertical fall of a bird like the gannet on its prey we are not
concerned here, but with the descent to earth of a bird soaring at a
considerable height. Now, many birds when rushing rapidly down appear
to close their wings, but they are never wholly closed; in some cases
they are carried as when folded, but are slightly raised from the
body; in other cases the wing is tightly pressed against the side, but
the primaries stand out obliquely, giving the descending bird the
figure of a barbed arrow-head. This may be seen in daws, choughs,
pipits, and many other species. The raven suddenly closes his
outspread wings, just as a man might drop his arms to his sides, and
falls head downwards through the air like a stone bird cast down from
its pedestal; but he falls obliquely, and, after falling for a space
of twenty or thirty or more feet, he throws out his wings and floats
for a few seconds on the air, then falls again, and then again, until
the earth is reached.

Let the reader imagine a series of invisible wires stretched, wire
above wire, at a distance of thirty or forty yards apart, to a height
of six or seven hundred yards from the earth. Let him next imagine an
acrobat, infinitely more daring, more agile, and graceful in action
than any performer he has ever seen, standing on the highest wire of
all, in his black silk tights, against the blue sky, his arms
outstretched; then dropping his arms to his sides and diving through
the air to the next wire, then to the next, and so on successively
until he comes to the earth. The feat would be similar, only on a
larger scale and less beautiful than that of the ravens as I witnessed
it again and again from the cliff on that windy day.

While watching this magnificent display it troubled me to think that
this pair of ravens would probably not long survive to be an ornament to
the coast. Their nest, it has been stated, is regularly robbed, but I
had been informed that in the summer of 1894 a third bird appeared, and
it was then conjectured that the pair had succeeded in rearing one of
their young. About a month later a raven was picked up dead on the coast
by a boatman,--killed, it was believed, by his fellow-ravens,--and since
then two birds only have been seen. There are only two more pair of
ravens on the Somersetshire coast, and, as one of these has made no
attempt to breed of late, we may take it that the raven population of
this county, where the species was formerly common, has now been reduced
to two pairs.

Anxious to find out if there was any desire in the place to preserve the
birds I had been observing, I made many inquiries in the neighbourhood,
and was told that the landlord cared nothing about them, and that the
tenant's only desire was to see the last of them. The tenant kept a
large number of sheep, and always feared, one of his men told me, that
the ravens would attack and kill his lambs. It was true that they had
not done so as yet, but they might kill a lamb at any time; and,
besides, there were the rabbits--the place swarmed with them--there was
no doubt that a young rabbit was taken occasionally.

Why, then, I asked, if they were so destructive, did not his master go
out and shoot them at once? The man looked grave, and answered that
his master would not do the killing himself, but would be very glad to
see it done by some other person.

How curious it is to find that the old superstitions about the raven
and the evil consequences of inflicting wilful injury on the bird
still survive, in spite of the fact that the species has been
persecuted almost to extirpation!

"Have you not read, sir," Don Quixote is made to say, "the annals and
histories of England, wherein are renowned and famous exploits of King
Arthur, of whom there goes a tradition, and a common one, all over
that kingdom of Great Britain, that the king did not die, but that by
magic art he was transformed into a raven, and that in process of time
he shall reign again and recover his kingdom and sceptre, for which
reason it cannot be proved that, from that day to this, any Englishman
has killed a raven?"

Now, it is certain that many Englishmen kill ravens, also that if the
country people in England ever had any knowledge of King Arthur they
have long forgotten it. Nevertheless this particular superstition
still exists. I have met with it in various places, and found an
instance of it only the other day in the Midlands, where the raven no
longer breeds. Near Broadway, in Worcestershire, there is a farm
called "Kite's Nest," where a pair of ravens bred annually up to about
twenty-eight or thirty years ago, when the young were taken and the
nest pulled down by three young men from the village: to this day it
is related by some of the old people that the three young men all
shortly came to bad ends. Near Broadway an old farmer told me that
since the birds had been driven away from "Kite's Nest" he had not
seen a raven in that part of the country until one made its appearance
on his farm about four years ago. He was out one day with his gun,
cautiously approaching a rabbit warren, when the bird suddenly got up
from the mouth of a burrow, and coming straight to him, hovered for
some seconds above his head, not more than thirty yards from him. "It
looked as if he wanted to be shot at," said the old man, "but he's no
bird to be shot at by I. 'Twould be bad for I to hurt a raven, and no
mistake."

Continuing my inquiries about the Somerset ravens, I found a man who
was anxious that they should be spared. His real reason was that their
eggs for him were golden eggs, for he lived near the cliff, and had an
eye always on them, and had been successful for many years in robbing
their nest, until he had at length come to look on these birds almost
as his own property. Being his he loved them, and was glad to talk
about them to me by the hour. Among other things he related that the
ravens had for very near neighbours on the rocks a pair of peregrine
falcons, and for several years there had always been peace between
them. At length one winter afternoon he heard loud, angry cries, and
presently two birds appeared above the cliff--a raven and a
falcon--engaged in desperate battle and mounting higher and higher as
they fought. The raven, he said, did not croak, but constantly uttered
his harsh, powerful, barking cry, while the falcon emitted shrill,
piercing cries that must have been audible two miles away. At
intervals as they rose, wheeling round and round, they struck at each
other, and becoming locked together fell like one bird for a
considerable distance; then they would separate and mount again,
shrieking and barking. At length they rose to so great a height that
he feared to lose sight of them; but the struggle grew fiercer; they
closed more often and fell longer distances, until they were near the
earth once more, when they finally separated, flying away in opposite
directions. He was afraid that the birds had fatally injured each
other, but after two or three days he saw them again in their places.

It was not possible for him, he told me, to describe the feelings he
had while watching the birds. It was the most wonderful thing he had
ever witnessed, and while the fight lasted he looked round from time
to time, straining his eyes and praying that some one would come to
share the sight with him, and because no one appeared he was
miserable.

I could well understand his feeling, and have not ceased to envy him
his good fortune. Thinking, after leaving him, of the sublime conflict
he had described, and of the raven's savage nature, Blake's question
in his "Tiger, tiger, burning bright" came to my mind:

   Did He who made the lamb make thee?

We can but answer that it was no other; that when the Supreme Artist
had fashioned it with bold, free lines out of the blue-black rock, he
smote upon it with his mallet and bade it live and speak; and its
voice when it spoke was in accord with its appearance and temper--the
savage, human-like croak, and the loud, angry bark, as if a
deep-chested man had barked like a blood-hound.

How strange it seems, when we come to think of it, that the owners of
great estates and vast parks, who are lovers of wild nature and animal
life, and should therefore have been most anxious to preserve this
bird, have allowed it to be extirpated! "A raven tree," says the
author of the Birds of Wiltshire, "is no mean ornament to a park, and
speaks of a wide domain and large timber, and an ancient family; for
the raven is an aristocratic bird and cannot brook a confined property
and trees of a young growth. Would that its predilection were more
humoured and a secure retreat allowed it by the larger proprietors in
the land!"

The wide domains, the large timber, and the ancient families survive,
but the raven has vanished. It occasionally takes a young rabbit. But
the human ravens of Somerset--to wit, the men and boys who have as
little right to the rabbits--do the same. I do not suppose that in
this way fewer than ten thousand to twenty thousand rabbits are
annually "picked up," or "poached"--if any one likes that word
better--in the county. Probably a larger number. The existence of a
pair of ravens on an estate of twenty or thirty thousand acres would
not add much to the loss. No doubt the raven kills other creatures
that are preserved for sport, but it does not appear that its
extermination has improved things in Somerset. Thirty years ago, when
black-game was more plentiful than it is now, the raven was to be met
with throughout the county, and was abundant on Exmoor and the
Quantocks. The old head keeper on the Forest of Exmoor told me that
when he took the place, twenty-five years ago, ravens, carrion crows,
buzzards, and hawks of various kinds were very abundant, and that the
war he had waged against them for a quarter of a century had well-nigh
extirpated all these species. He had kept a careful record of all
birds killed, noting the species in every case, as he was paid for
all, but the reward varied, the largest sum being given for the
largest birds--ravens and buzzards. His book shows that in one year, a
quarter of a century ago, he was paid for fifty-two ravens shot and
trapped. After that the number annually diminished rapidly, and for
several years past not one raven had been killed.

At present one may go from end to end of the county, which is a long
one, and find no raven; but in very many places, from North Devon to
the borders of Gloucestershire, one would find accounts of "last
ravens." Even in the comparatively populous neighbourhood of Wells at
least three pairs of ravens bred annually down to about twenty years
ago--one pair in the tower on Glastonbury Tor, one on the Ebor rocks,
and one at Wookey Hole, two miles from the town.

But Somerset is no richer in memories of "last ravens" than most
English counties. A selection of the most interesting of such memories
of ravens expelled from their ancestral breeding-places during the
last half-century would fill a volume. In conclusion I will give one
of the raven stories I picked up in Somerset. It was related to me by
Dr Livett, who has been the parish doctor in Wells for over sixty
years, and was able to boast, before retiring in 1898, that he was the
oldest parish doctor in the kingdom. About the year 1841 he was sent
for to attend a cottage woman at Priddy--a desolate little village
high up in the Mendips, four or five miles from Wells. He had to
remain some hours at the cottage, and about midnight he was with the
other members of the family in the living-room, when a loud tapping
was heard on the glazed window. As no one in the room moved, and the
tapping continued at intervals, he asked why some one did not open the
door. They replied that it was only the ravens, and went on to tell
him that a pair of these birds roosted every night close by, and
invariably when a light was seen burning at a late hour in any cottage
they would come and tap at the window. The ravens had often been seen
doing it, and their habit was so well known that no notice was taken
of it.



CHAPTER IX

OWLS IN A VILLAGE


In November, when tramping in the Midlands, I paid a visit to a friend
who had previously informed me, in describing the attractions of the
small, remote, rustic village he lived in, that it was haunted by
owls.

The night-roving bird that inhabits the country village and its
immediate neighbourhood is, in most cases, the white or barn owl, the
owl that prefers a loft in a barn or a church tower for home and
breeding-place to the hollow, ivied tree. The loft is dry and roomy,
the best shelter from the storm and the tempest, although not always
from the tempest of man's insensate animosity. The larger wood owl is
supposed to have a different disposition, to be a dweller in deep
woods, in love with "seclusion, gloom, and retirement,"--a thorough
hermit. It is not so everywhere, certainly not in my friend's
Gloucestershire village, where the white owl is unknown, while the
brown or wood owl is quite common. But it is not a thickly wooded
district; the woods there are small and widely separated. There is,
however, a deal of old hedgerow timber and many large trees scattered
about the fields. These the owl inhabits and is abundant simply
because the gamekeeper is not there with his everlasting gun; while
the farmers look on the bird rather as a friend than an enemy.

To go a little further into the matter, there are no gamekeepers
because the landowners cannot afford the expensive luxury of
hand-reared pheasants. The country is, or was, a rich one; but the
soil is clay so extraordinarily stiff that four or five horses are
needed to draw a plough. It is, indeed, strange to see five huge
horses, all in line, dragging a plough, and moving so slowly that,
when looked at from a distance, they appear not to move at all. If
here and there a little wheat is still grown, it is only because, as
the farmers say, "We mun have straw." The land has mostly gone out of
cultivation, many vacant farms could be had at about five shillings an
acre, and the landlords would in many cases, when pay day came round,
be glad to take half a crown and forgive the rest.

The fields that were once ploughed are used for grazing, but the sheep
and cattle on them are very few; one can only suppose that the land is
not suitable for grazing purposes, or else that the farmers are too
poor to buy sufficient stock.

Viewed from some eminence, the wide, green country appears a veritable
waste; the idle hedges enclosing vacant fields, the ancient scattered
trees, the absence of life, the noonday quiet, where the silence is
only broken at intervals by some distant bird voice, strangely impress
the mind as by a vision of a time to come and of an England
dispeopled. It is restful; there is a melancholy charm in it similar
to that of a nature untouched by man, although not so strong. Here,
everywhere are visible the marks of human toil and ownership--the
wave-like, parallel ridges in the fields, now mantled with grass, and
the hedges that cut up the surface of the earth into innumerable
segments of various shapes and sizes. It is not wild, but there is
something in it of the desolaton that accompanies wildness--a promise
soon to be fulfilled, now that grass and herbage will have freedom to
grow, and the hedges that have been trimmed for a thousand years will
no longer be restrained from spreading.

In this district the farmhouses and cottages are not scattered over
the country. The farm-buildings, as a rule, form part of the village;
the villages are small and mostly hidden from sight among embowering
trees or in a coombe. From the high ground in some places it is
possible to gaze over many miles of surrounding country and not see a
human habitation; hours may sometimes be passed in such a spot without
a human figure appearing in the landscape.

The village I was staying at is called Willersey; the nearest to it, a
little over a mile away, is Saintbury. This last was just such a
pretty peaceful spot as would tempt a world-weary man to exclaim on
first catching sight of it, "Here I could wish to end my days." A
little old-world village, set among trees in the sheltering hollow of
a deep coombe, consisting of thatched stone cottages, grouped in a
pretty disorder; a modest ale-house; a parsonage overgrown with ivy;
and the old stone church, stained yellow and grey with lichen, its low
square tower overtopped by the surrounding trees. It was a pleasure
merely to sit idle, thinking of nothing, on the higher part of the
green slope, with that small centre of rustic life at my feet. For
many hours of each day it was strangely silent, the hours during which
the men were away at a distance in the fields, the children shut up in
school, and the women in their cottages. An occasional bird voice
alone broke the silence--the distant harsh call of a crow, or the
sudden startled note of a magpie close at hand, a sound that resembles
the broken or tremulous bleat of a goat. If an apple dropped from a
tree in the village, its thud would be audible from end to end of the
little crooked street in every cottage it would be known that an apple
had dropped. On some days the sound of the threshing-machine would be
heard a mile or two away; in that still atmosphere it was like the
prolonged hum of some large fly magnified a million times. A musical
sound, buzzing or clear, at times tremulous, rising or falling at
intervals, it would swell and fill the world, then grow faint and die
away. This is one of the artificial sounds which, like distant chimes,
harmonise with rural scenes.

Towards evening the children were all at play, their shrill cries and
laughter sounding from all parts of the village. Then, when the sun
had set and the landscape grew dim, they would begin to call to one
another from all sides in imitation of the wood owl's hoot. During
these autumn evenings the children at this spot appeared to drop
naturally into the owl's note, just as in spring in all parts of
England they take to mimicking the cuckoo's call. Children are like
birds of a social and loquacious disposition in their fondness for a
set call, a penetrative cry or note, by means of which they can
converse at long distances. But they have no settled call of their
own, no cry as distinctive as that of one of the lower animals. They
mimic some natural sound. In the case of the children of these Midland
villages it is the wood owl's clear prolonged note; and in every place
where some animal with a striking and imitable voice is found its call
is used by them. Where no such sound is heard, as in large towns, they
invent a call; that is, one invents it and the others immediately take
it up. It is curious that the human species, in spite of its long wild
life in the past, should have no distinctive call, or calls,
universally understood. Among savage tribes the men often mimic the
cry of some wild animal as a call, just as our children do that of an
owl by night, and of some diurnal species in the daytime. Other tribes
have a call of their own, a shout or yell peculiar to the tribe; but
it is not used instinctively--it is a mere symbol, and is artificial,
like the long-drawn piercing coo-ee of the Australian colonists in the
bush, and the abrupt Hi! with which we hail a cab, with other forms of
halooing; or even the lupine gurgled yowl of the morning milkman.

After dark the silence at the village was very profound until about
half-past nine to ten o'clock, when the real owls, so easily to be
distinguished from their human mockers, would begin their hooting--a
single, long, uninflected note, and after it a silent interval of
eight or ten seconds; then the succeeding longer, much more beautiful
note, quavering at first, but growing steady and clear, with some
slight modulation in it. The symbols hoo-hoo and to-whit to-who, as
Shakespeare wrote it, stand for the wood owl's note in books; but you
cannot spell the sound of an oaten straw, nor of the owl's pipe. There
is no w in it, and no h and no t. It suggests some wind instrument
that resembles the human voice, but a very un-English one--perhaps the
high-pitched somewhat nasal voice of an Arab intoning a prayer to
Allah. One cannot hit on the precise instrument, there are so many;
perhaps it is obsolete, and the owl was taught his song by lovers in
the long ago, who wooed at twilight in a forgotten tongue,

       And gave the soft winds a voice,
   With instruments of unremembered forms.

No, that cannot be; for the wood owl's music is doubtless older than
any instrument made by hands to be blown by human lips. Listening by
night to their concert, the many notes that come from far and near,
human-like, yet airy, delicate, mysterious, one could imagine that the
sounds had a meaning and a message to us; that, like the fairy-folk in
Mr Yeats's Celtic lyric, the singers were singing--

   We who are old, old and gay,
         O, so old;
   Thousands of years, thousands of years,
         If all were told!

The fairies certainly have a more understandable way of putting it
than the geologists and the anthropologists when we ask them to tell
us how long it is since Palæolithic man listened to the hooting of the
wood owl. Has this sound the same meaning for us that it had for
him--the human being that did not walk erect, and smile, and look on
heaven, but went with a stoop, looking on the earth? No, and Yes.
Standing alone under the great trees in the dark still nights, the
sound seems to increase the feeling of loneliness, to make the gloom
deeper, the silence more profound. Turning our visions inward on such
occasions, we are startled with a glimpse of the night-side of nature
in the soul: we have with us strange unexpected guests, fantastic
beings that are in no way related to our lives; dead and buried since
childhood, they have miraculously been restored to life. When we are
back in the candlelight and firelight, and when the morrow dawns,
these children of night and the unsubstantial appearance of things

                      fade away
   Into the light of common day.

The villagers of Saintbury are, however, still in a somewhat primitive
mental condition; the light of common day does not deliver them from
the presence of phantoms, as the following instance will show.

Near Willersey there is a group of very large old elm-trees which is a
favourite meeting-place of the owls, and one very dark starless night,
about ten o'clock, I had been listening to them, and after they ceased
hooting I remained for half an hour standing motionless in the same
place. At length, in the direction of Saintbury, I heard the dull
sound of heavy stumbling footsteps coming towards me over the rough,
ridgy field. Nearer and nearer the man came, until, arriving at the
hedge close to which I stood, he scrambled through, muttering
maledictions on the thorns that scratched and tore him; then, catching
sight of me at a distance of two or three yards, he started back and
stood still very much astonished at seeing a motionless human figure
at that spot. I greeted him, and, to explain my presence, remarked
that I had been listening to the owls.

"Owls!--listening to the owls!" he exclaimed, staring at me. After a
while he added, "We have been having too much of the owls over at
Saintbury." Had I heard, he asked, about the young woman who had
dropped down dead a week or two ago, after hearing an owl hooting near
her cottage in the daytime? Well, the owl had been hooting again in
the same tree, and no one knew who it was for and what to expect next.
The village was in an excited state about it, and all the children had
gathered near the tree and thrown stones into it, but the owl had
stubbornly refused to come out.

That about the young woman he had spoken of is a queer little story to
read in this enlightened land. She was apparently in very good health,
a wife, and the mother of a small child; but a few weeks before her
sudden death a strange thing occurred to trouble her mind. One
afternoon, when sitting alone in her cottage taking tea, she saw a
cricket come in at the open door, and run straight into the middle of
the room. There it remained motionless, and without stirring from her
seat she took a few moist tea-leaves and threw them down near the
welcome guest. The cricket moved up to the leaves, and when it touched
them and appeared just about to begin sucking their moisture, to her
dismay it turned aside, ran away out at the door, and disappeared. She
informed all her neighbours of this startling occurrence, and sadly
spoke of an aunt who was living at another village and was known to be
in bad health. "It must be for her," she said; "we'll soon be hearing
bad news of her, I'm thinking." But no bad news came, and when she was
beginning to believe that the strange cricket that had refused to
remain in the house had proved a false prophet, the warning of the owl
came to startle her afresh. At noonday she heard it hooting in the
great horse-chestnut overgrown with ivy that stands at the roadside,
close to her cottage. The incident was discussed by the villagers with
their usual solemnity and head-shakings, and now the young woman gave
up all hopes of her sick aunt's recovery; for that one of her people
was going to die was certain, and it could be no other than that
ailing one. And, after all, the message and warning was for her and
not the aunt. Not many days after the owl had hooted in broad
daylight, she dropped down dead in her cottage while engaged in some
domestic work.

On the following morning I went with the friend I was visiting at
Willersey to Saintbury, and the story heard overnight was confirmed.
The owl had been hooting in the daytime in the same old horse-chestnut
tree from which it had a short time ago foretold the young woman's
death. One of the villagers, who was engaged in repairing the thatch
of a cottage close to the tree, informed us that the owl's hooting had
not troubled him in the least. Owls, he truly said, often hoot in the
daytime during the autumn months, and he did not believe that it meant
death for some one.

This sceptical fellow, it is hardly necessary to say, was a young man
who had spent a good deal of his time away from the village.

At Willersey, a Mr Andrews, a lover of birds who owns a large garden and
orchard in the village, gave me an entertaining account of a pet wood
owl he once had. He had it as a young bird and never confined it. As a
rule it spent most of the daylight hours in an apple loft, coming forth
when the sun was low to fly about the grounds until it found him, when
it would perch on his shoulder and spend the evening in his company. In
one thing this owl differed from most pet birds which are allowed to
have their liberty: he made no difference between the people of the
house and those who were not of it; he would fly on to anybody's
shoulder, although he only addressed his hunger-cry to those who were
accustomed to feed him. As he roamed at will all over the place he
became well known to every one, and on account of his beauty and perfect
confidence he grew to be something of a village pet. But short days with
long, dark evenings--and how dark they can be in a small, tree-shaded,
lampless village!--wrought a change in the public feeling about the owl.
He was always abroad in the evening, gliding about unseen in the
darkness on downy silent wings, and very suddenly dropping on to the
shoulder of any person--man, woman, or child--who happened to be out of
doors. Men would utter savage maledictions when they felt the demon
claws suddenly clutch them; girls shrieked and fled to the nearest
cottage, into which they would rush, palpitating with terror. Then there
would be a laugh, for it was only the tame owl; but the same terror
would be experienced on the next occasion, and young women and children
were afraid to venture out after nightfall lest the ghostly creature
with luminous eyes should pop down upon them.

At length, one morning the bird came not back from his night-wandering,
and after two days and nights, during which he had not been seen, he was
given up for lost. On the third day Mr Andrews was in his orchard, when,
happening to pass near a clump of bushes, he heard the owl's note of
recognition very faintly uttered. The poor bird had been in hiding at
that spot the whole time, and when taken up was found to be in a very
weak condition and to have one leg broken. No doubt one of the villagers
on whose shoulders it had sought to alight, had struck it down with his
stick and caused its injury. The bone was skilfully repaired and the
bird tenderly cared for, and before long he was well again and strong as
ever; but a change had come over his disposition. His confidence in his
human fellow-creatures was gone; he now regarded them all--even those of
the house--with suspicion, opening wide his eyes and drawing a little
back when any person approached him. Never more did he alight on any
person's shoulder, though his evenings were spent as before in flying
about the village. Insensibly his range widened and he became wilder.
Human companionship, no longer pleasant, ceased to be necessary; and at
length he found a mate who was willing to overlook his pauper past, and
with her he went away to live his wild life.



CHAPTER X

THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SHELDRAKE


At the head of the Cheddar valley, a couple of miles from the
cathedral city of Wells, the Somerset Axe is born, gushing out
noisily, a mighty volume of clear cold water, from a cavern in a black
precipitous rock on the hillside. This cavern is called Wookey Hole,
and above it the rough wall is draped with ivy and fern, and many
small creeping plants and flowery shrubs rooted in the crevices; and
in the holes in the rock the daws have their nests. They are a
numerous and a vociferous colony, but the noise of their loudest
cawings, when they rush out like a black cloud and are most excited,
is almost drowned by the louder roar of the torrent beneath--the
river's great cry of liberty and joy on issuing from the blackness in
the hollow of the hills into the sunshine of heaven and the verdure of
that beautiful valley. The Axe finishes its course fifteen miles away,
for 'tis a short river, but they are pleasant miles in one of the
fairest vales in the west of England, rich in cattle and in corn. And
at the point where it flows into the Severn Sea stands Brean Down, a
huge isolated hill, the last of the Mendip range on that side. It has
a singular appearance: it might be likened in its form to a
hippopotamus standing on the flat margin of an African lake, its
breast and mouth touching the water, and all its body belly-deep in
the mud; it is, in fact, a hill or a promontory united to the mainland
by a strip of low flat land--a huge, oblong, saddle-backed hill
projected into the sea towards Wales. Down at its foot, at the point
where it touches the mainland, close to the mouth of the Axe, there is
a farmhouse, and the farmer is the tenant of the entire hill, and uses
it as a sheep-walk. The sheep and rabbits and birds are the only
inhabitants. I remember a delightful experience I had one cold windy
but very bright spring morning near the farmhouse. There is there, at
a spot where one is able to ascend the steep hill, a long strip of
rock that looks like the wall of a gigantic ruined castle, rough and
black, draped with ancient ivy and crowned with furze and bramble and
thorn. Here, coming out of the cold wind to the shelter of this giant
ivy-draped black wall, I stood still to enjoy the sensations of warmth
and a motionless air, when high above appeared a swift-moving little
cloud of linnets, seemingly blown across the sky by the gale; but
quite suddenly, when directly over me, the birds all came straight
down, to drop like a shower of small stones into the great masses of
ivy and furze and bramble. And no sooner had they settled, vanishing
into that warm and windless greenery, than they simultaneously burst
into such a concert of sweetest wild linnet music, that I was
enchanted, and thought that never in all the years I had spent in the
haunts of wild birds had I heard anything so fairy-like and beautiful.

On this hill, or down, at the highest point, you have the Severn Sea
before you, and, beyond, the blue mountains of Glamorganshire, and, on
the shore, the town of Cardiff made beautiful by distance, vaguely
seen in the blue haze and shimmering sunlight like a dream city. On
your right hand, on your own side of the narrow sea, you have a good
view of the big young growing town of Weston-super-Mare--Bristol's
Margate or Brighton, as it has been called. It is built of Bath stone,
and at this distance looks grey, darkened with the slate roofs, and a
little strange; but the sight is not unpleasant, and if you wish to
retain that pleasant impression, go not nearer to it than Brean Down,
since on a closer view its aspect changes, and it is simply ugly. On
your left hand you look over long miles, long leagues, of low flat
country, extending to the Parret River, and beyond it to the blue
Quantock range. That low land is on a level with the sea, and is the
flattest bit of country in England, not even excepting the Ely
district. Apart from the charm which flatness has in itself for some
persons--it has for me a very great charm on account of early
associations--there is much here to attract the lover of nature. It is
the chief haunt and paradise of the reed warbler, one of our sweetest
songsters, and here his music may be heard amid more perfect
surroundings than in any other haunt of the bird known to me in
England.

This low level strip of country is mostly pasture-land, and is drained
by endless ditches, full of reeds and sedges growing in the stagnant
sherry-coloured water; dwarf hawthorn grows on the banks of the
ditches, and is the only tree vegetation. Standing on one of the wide
flat green fields or spaces, at a distance from the sandy dyke or
ditch, it is strangely silent. Unless a lark is singing near, there is
no sound at all; but it is wonderfully bright and fragrant where the
green level earth is yellowed over with cowslips, and you get the
deliciousness of that flower in fullest measure. On coming to the dyke
you are no longer in a silent land with fragrance as its principal
charm--you are in the midst of a perpetual flow and rush of sound. You
may sit or lie there on the green bank by the hour and it will not
cease; and so sweet and beautiful is it, that after a day spent in
rambling in such a place with these delicate spring delights, on
returning to the woods and fields and homesteads the songs of thrush
and blackbird sound in the ear as loud and coarse as the cackling of
fowls and geese.

It is in this district, from Brean Down westwards along the coast to
Dunster, that I have been best able to observe and enjoy the beautiful
sheldrake--almost the only large bird which is now permitted to exist
in Somerset.

The sheldrake of the British Islands, called the common sheldrake (or
sheld-duck) in the natural history books, for no good reason, since
there is but one, is now becoming common enough as an ornamental
waterfowl. It is to be seen in so many parks and private grounds all
over the country that the sight of it in its conspicuous plumage must
be pretty familiar to people generally. And many of those who know it
best as a tame bird would, perhaps, say that the descriptive epithets
of strange and beautiful do not exactly fit it. They would say that it
has a striking appearance, or that it is peculiar and handsome in a
curious way; or they might describe it as an abnormally slender and
elegant-looking Aylesbury duck, whiter than that domestic bird, with a
crimson beak and legs, dark-green glossy head, and sundry patches of
chestnut-red and black on its snowy plumage. In calling it "strange" I
was thinking of its manners and customs rather than of the singularity
of its appearance.

As to its beauty, those who know it in a state of nature, in its
haunts on the sea coast, will agree that it is one of the handsomest
of our large wild birds. It cannot now be said that it is common,
except in a few favoured localities. On the south coast it is all but
extinct as a breeding species, and on the east side of England it is
becoming increasingly rare, even in spots so well suited to it as Holy
Island, and the coast at Bamborough Castle, with its great sand-hills.
These same hills that look on the sea, and are greener than ivy with
the everlasting green of the rough marram grass that covers them,
would be a very paradise to the sheldrake, but for man--vile man!--who
watches him through a spy-glass in the breeding season to rob him of
his eggs. The persecuted bird has grown exceedingly shy and cautious,
but go he must to his burrow in the dunes, and the patient watcher
sees him at a great distance on account of his conspicuous white
plumage, and marks the spot, then takes his spade to dig down to the
hidden eggs.

On the Somerset coast the bird is not so badly off, and I have had
many happy days with him there. Simply to watch the birds at feed,
when the tide goes out and they are busy searching for the small
marine creatures they live on among the stranded seaweed, is a great
pleasure. At such times they are most active and loquacious, uttering
a variety of wild goose-like sounds, frequently rising to pursue one
another in circles, or to fly up and down the coast in pairs, or
strings of half a dozen birds, with a wonderfully graceful flight. If,
after watching this sea-fowl by the sea, a person will go to some park
water to look on the same bird, pinioned and tame, sitting or
standing, or swimming about in a quiet, listless way, he will be
amazed at the difference in its appearance. The tame bird is no bigger
than a domestic duck; the wild sheldrake, flying about in the strong
sunshine, looks almost as large as a goose. A similar illusion is
produced in the case of some other large birds. Thus, the common
buzzard, when rising in circles high above us, at times appears as big
as an eagle, and it has been conjectured that this magnifying effect,
which gives something of sublimity to the soaring buzzard, is caused
by the sunlight passing through the semi-translucent wing and tail
feathers. In the case of the sheldrake, the exaggerated size may be an
effect of strong sunlight on a flying white object. Seen on the wing
at a distance the plumage appears entirely of a surpassing whiteness,
the dark patches of chestnut, black, and deep green colour showing
only when the bird is near, or when it alights and folds its white
wings.

When the tide has covered their feeding-ground on the coast, the
sheldrakes are accustomed to visit the low green pasture-lands, and
may be seen in small flocks feeding like geese on the clover and
grass. Here one day I saw about a dozen sheldrakes in the midst of an
immense congregation of rooks, daws, and starlings feeding among some
cows. It was a curious gathering, and the red Devons, shining white
sheldrakes, and black rooks on the bright green grass, produced a
singular effect.

Best of all it is to observe the birds when breeding in May. Brean
Down is an ancient favourite breeding-site, and the birds breed there
in the rabbit holes, and sometimes under a thick furze-bush on the
ground. At another spot on this coast I have had the rare good fortune
to find a number of pairs breeding at one spot on private enclosed
land, where I could approach them very closely, and watch them any day
for hours at a stretch, studying their curious sign-language, about
which nothing, to my knowledge, has hitherto been written. There were
about thirty pairs, and their breeding-holes were mostly
rabbit-burrows scattered about on a piece of sandy ground, about an
acre and a half in extent, almost surrounded by water. When I watched
them the birds were laying; and at about ten o'clock in the morning
they would begin to come in from the sea in pairs, all to settle down
at one spot; and by creeping some distance at the water-side among the
rushes, I could get within forty yards of them, and watch them by the
hour without being discovered by them. In an hour or so there would be
forty or fifty birds forming a flock, each couple always keeping close
together, some sitting on the short grass, others standing, all very
quiet. At length one bird in the flock, a male, would all at once
begin to move his head in a slow, measured manner from side to side,
like a pianist swaying his body in time to his own music. If no notice
was taken of this motion by the duck sitting by his side dozing on the
grass, the drake, would take a few steps forward and place himself
directly before her, so as to compel her to give attention, and rock
more vigorously than ever, haranguing her, as it were, although
without words; the meaning of it all being that it was time for her to
get up and go to her burrow to lay her egg. I do not know any other
species in which the male takes it on himself to instruct his mate on
a domestic matter which one would imagine to be exclusively within her
own province; and some ornithologists may doubt that I have given a
right explanation of these curious doings of the sheldrake. But mark
what follows: The duck at length gets up, in a lazy, reluctant way,
perhaps, and stretches a wing and a leg, and then after awhile sways
her head two or three times, as if to say that she is ready. At once
the drake, followed by her, walks off, and leads the way to the
burrow, which may be a couple of hundred yards away; and during the
walk she sometimes stops, whereupon he at once turns back and begins
the swaying motion again. At last, arriving at the mouth of the
burrow, he steps aside and invites her to enter, rocking himself
again, and anon bending his head down and looking into the cavity,
then drawing back again; and at last, after so much persuasion on his
part, she lowers her head, creeps quietly down and disappears within.
Left alone, the drake stations himself at the burrow's mouth, with
head raised like a sentinel on duty; but after five or ten minutes he
slowly walks back to the flock, and settles down for a quiet nap among
his fellows. They are all married couples; and every drake among them,
when in some mysterious way he knows the time has come for the egg to
be laid, has to go through the same long ceremonious performance, with
variations according to his partner's individual disposition.

It is amusing to see at intervals a pair march off from the flock; and
one wonders whether the others, whose turn will come by and by, pass
any remarks; but the dumb conversation at the burrow's mouth is always
most delightful to witness. Sometimes the lady bird exhibits an
extreme reluctance, and one can imagine her saying, "I have come thus
far just to please you, but you'll never persuade me to go down into
that horrid dark hole. If I must lay an egg, I'll just drop it out
here on the grass and let it take its chance."

It is rather hard on the drake; but he never loses his temper, never
boxes her ears with his carmine red beak, or thrashes her with his
shining white wings, nor does he tell her that she is just like a
woman--an illogical fool. He is most gentle and considerate, full of
distress and sympathy for her, and tells her again what he has said
before, but in a different way; he agrees with her that it is dark and
close down there away from the sweet sunlight, but that it is an old,
old custom of the sheldrakes to breed in holes, and has its
advantages; and that if she will only overcome her natural repugnance
and fear of the dark, in that long narrow tunnel, when she is once
settled down on the nest and feels the cold eggs growing warm again
under her warm body she will find that it is not so bad after all.

And in the end he prevails; and bowing her pretty head she creeps
quietly down and disappears, while he remains on guard at the
door--for a little while.



CHAPTER XI

GEESE: AN APPRECIATION AND A MEMORY


One November evening, in the neighbourhood of Lyndhurst, I saw a flock
of geese marching in a long procession, led, as their custom is, by a
majestical gander; they were coming home from their feeding-ground in
the forest, and when I spied them were approaching their owner's
cottage. Arrived at the wooden gate of the garden in front of the
cottage, the leading bird drew up square before it, and with repeated
loud screams demanded admittance. Pretty soon, in response to the
summons, a man came out of the cottage, walked briskly down the garden
path and opened the gate, but only wide enough to put his right leg
through; then, placing his foot and knee against the leading bird, he
thrust him roughly back; as he did so three young geese pressed
forward and were allowed to pass in; then the gate was slammed in the
face of the gander and the rest of his followers, and the man went
back to the cottage. The gander's indignation was fine to see, though
he had most probably experienced the same rude treatment on many
previous occasions. Drawing up to the gate again he called more loudly
than before; then deliberately lifted a leg, and placing his broad
webbed foot like an open hand against the gate actually tried to push
it open! His strength was not sufficient; but he continued to push and
to call until the man returned to open the gate and let the birds go
in.

It was an amusing scene, and the behaviour of the bird struck me as
characteristic. It was this lofty spirit of the goose and strict
adhesion to his rights, as well as his noble appearance and the
stately formality and deliberation of his conduct, that caused me very
long ago to respect and admire him above all our domestic birds.
Doubtless from the æsthetic point of view other domesticated species
are his superiors in some things: the mute swan, "floating double,"
graceful and majestical, with arched neck and ruffled scapulars; the
oriental pea-fowl in his glittering mantle; the helmeted guinea-fowl,
powdered with stars, and the red cock with his military bearing--a
shining Elizabethan knight of the feathered world, singer, lover, and
fighter. It is hardly to be doubted that, mentally, the goose is above
all these; and to my mind his, too, is the nobler figure; but it is a
very familiar figure, and we have not forgotten the reason of its
presence among us. He satisfies a material want only too generously,
and on this account is too much associated in the mind with mere
flavours. We keep a swan or a peacock for ornament; a goose for the
table--he is the Michaelmas and Christmas bird. A somewhat similar
debasement has fallen on the sheep in Australia. To the man in the
bush he is nothing but a tallow-elaborating organism, whose destiny it
is to be cast, at maturity, into the melting vat, and whose chief use
it is to lubricate the machinery of civilisation. It a little shocks,
and at the same time amuses, our Colonial to find that great artists
in the parent country admire this most unpoetic beast, and waste their
time and talents in painting it.

Some five or six years ago, in the Alpine Journal, Sir Martin Conway
gave a lively and amusing account of his first meeting with A. D.
M'Cormick, the artist who subsequently accompanied him to the
Karakoram Himalayas. "A friend," he wrote, "came to me bringing in his
pocket a crumpled-up water sketch or impression of a lot of geese. I
was struck by the breadth of the treatment, and I remember saying that
the man who could see such monumental magnificence in a flock of geese
ought to be the kind of man to paint mountains, and render somewhat of
their majesty."

I will venture to say that he looked at the sketch or impression with
the artist's clear eye, but had not previously so looked at the living
creature; or had not seen it clearly, owing to the mist of images--if
that be a permissible word--that floated between it and his
vision--remembered flavours and fragrances, of rich meats, and of sage
and onions and sweet apple sauce. When this interposing mist is not
present, who can fail to admire the goose--that stately bird-shaped
monument of clouded grey or crystal white marble, to be seen standing
conspicuous on any village green or common in England? For albeit a
conquered bird, something of the ancient wild and independent spirit
survives to give him a prouder bearing than we see in his fellow
feathered servants. He is the least timid of our domestic birds, yet
even at a distance he regards your approach in an attitude distinctly
reminiscent of the grey-lag goose, the wariest of wild fowl,
stretching up his neck and standing motionless and watchful, a
sentinel on duty. Seeing him thus, if you deliberately go near him he
does not slink or scuttle away, as other domestic birds of meaner
spirits do, but boldly advances to meet and challenge you. How keen
his senses are, how undimmed by ages of captivity the ancient instinct
of watchfulness is in him, every one must know who has slept in lonely
country houses. At some late hour of the night the sleeper was
suddenly awakened by the loud screaming of the geese; they had
discovered the approach of some secret prowler, a fox perhaps, or a
thievish tramp or gipsy, before a dog barked. In many a lonely
farmhouse throughout the land you will be told that the goose is the
better watch-dog.

When we consider this bird purely from the æsthetic point of view--and
here I am speaking of geese generally, all of the thirty species of
the sub-family Anserinæ, distributed over the cold and temperate
regions of the globe--we find that several of them possess a rich and
beautiful colouring, and, if not so proud, often a more graceful
carriage than our domestic bird, or its original, the wild grey-lag
goose. To know these birds is to greatly admire them, and we may now
add that this admiration is no new thing on the earth. It is the
belief of distinguished Egyptologists that a fragmentary fresco,
discovered at Medum, dates back to a time at least four thousand years
before the Christian era, and is probably the oldest picture in the
world. It is a representation of six geese, of three different
species, depicted with marvellous fidelity, and a thorough
appreciation of form and colouring.

Among the most distinguished in appearance and carriage of the
handsome exotic species is the Magellanic goose, one of the five or
six species of the Antarctic genus Chloëphaga, found in Patagonia and
the Magellan Islands. One peculiarity of this bird is that the sexes
differ in colouring, the male being white, with grey mottlings,
whereas the prevailing colour of the female is a ruddy brown,--a fine
rich colour set off with some white, grey, intense cinnamon, and
beautiful black mottlings. Seen on the wing the flock presents a
somewhat singular appearance, as of two distinct species associating
together, as we may see when by chance gulls and rooks, or sheldrakes
and black scoters, mix in one flock.

This fine bird has long been introduced into this country, and as it
breeds freely it promises to become quite common. I can see it any
day; but these exiles, pinioned and imprisoned in parks, are not quite
like the Magellanic geese I was intimate with in former years, in
Patagonia and in the southern pampas of Buenos Ayres, where they
wintered every year in incredible numbers, and were called "bustards"
by the natives. To see them again, as I have seen them, by day and all
day long in their thousands, and to listen again by night to their
wild cries, I would willingly give up, in exchange, all the
invitations to dine which I shall receive, all the novels I shall
read, all the plays I shall witness, in the next three years; and some
other miserable pleasures might be thrown in. Listening to the birds
when, during migration, on a still frosty night, they flew low,
following the course of some river, flock succeeding flock all night
long; or heard from a herdsman's hut on the pampas, when thousands of
the birds had encamped for the night on the plain hard by, the effect
of their many voices (like that of their appearance when seen flying)
was singular, as well as beautiful, on account of the striking
contrasts in the various sounds they uttered. On clear frosty nights
they are most loquacious, and their voices may be heard by the hour,
rising and falling, now few, and now many taking part in the endless
confabulation--a talkee-talkee and concert in one; a chatter as of
many magpies; the solemn deep, honk-honk, the long, grave note
changing to a shuddering sound; and, most wonderful, the fine silvery
whistle of the male, steady or tremulous, now long and now short,
modulated a hundred ways--wilder and more beautiful than the night-cry
of the widgeon, brighter than the voice of any shore bird, or any
warbler, thrush or wren, or the sound of any wind instrument.

It is probable that those who have never known the Magellanic goose in
a state of nature are best able to appreciate its fine qualities in
its present semi-domestic state in England. At all events the
enthusiasm with which a Londoner spoke of this bird in my presence
some time ago came to me rather as a surprise. It was at the studio in
St John's Wood of our greatest animal painter, one Sunday evening, and
the talk was partly about birds, when an elderly gentleman said that
he was pleased to meet some one who would be able to tell him the name
of a wonderful bird he had lately seen in St James's Park. His
description was vague; he could not say what its colour was, nor what
sort of beak it had, nor whether its feet were webbed or not; but it
was a large tall bird, and there were two of them. It was the way this
bird had comported itself towards him that had so taken him. As he
went through the park at the side of the enclosure, he caught sight of
the pair some distance away on the grass, and the birds, observing
that he had stopped in his walk to regard them, left off feeding, or
whatever they were doing, and came to him. Not to be fed--it was
impossible to believe that they had any such motive; it was solely and
purely a friendly feeling towards him which caused them immediately to
respond to his look, and to approach him, to salute him, in their way.
And when they had approached to within three or four yards of where he
stood, advancing with a quiet dignity, and had then uttered a few soft
low sounds, accompanied with certain graceful gestures, they turned
and left him; but not abruptly, with their backs towards him--oh, no,
they did nothing so common; they were not like other birds--they were
perfect in everything; and, moving from him, half paused at intervals,
half turning first to one side then the other, inclining their heads
as they went. Here our old friend rose and paced up and down the
floor, bowing to this side and that and making other suitable
gestures, to try to give us some faint idea of the birds' gentle
courtesy and exquisite grace. It was, he assured us, most astonishing;
the birds' gestures and motions were those of a human being, but in
their perfection immeasurably superior to anything of the kind to be
seen in any Court in Europe or the world.

The birds he had described, I told him, were no doubt Upland Geese.

"Geese!" he exclaimed, in a tone of surprise, and disgust. "Are you
speaking seriously? Geese! Oh, no, nothing like geese--a sort of
ostrich!"

It was plain that he had no accurate knowledge of birds; if he had
caught sight of a kingfisher or green woodpecker, he would probably
have described it as a sort of peacock. Of the goose, he only knew
that it is a ridiculous, awkward creature, proverbial for its
stupidity, although very good to eat; and it wounded him to find that
any one could think so meanly of his intelligence and taste as to
imagine him capable of greatly admiring any bird called a goose, or
any bird in any way related to a goose.

I will now leave the subject of the beautiful antarctic goose, the
"bustard" of the horsemen of the pampas, and "sort of ostrich" of our
Londoner, to relate a memory of my early years, and of how I first
became an admirer of the familiar domestic goose. Never since have I
looked on it in such favourable conditions.

Two miles from my home there stood an old mud-built house, thatched
with rushes, and shaded by a few ancient half-dead trees. Here lived a
very old woman with her two unmarried daughters, both withered and
grey as their mother; indeed, in appearance, they were three amiable
sister witches, all very very old. The high ground on which the house
stood sloped down to an extensive reed- and rush-grown marsh, the
source of an important stream; it was a paradise of wild fowl, swan,
roseate spoonbill, herons white and herons grey, ducks of half a dozen
species, snipe and painted snipe, and stilt, plover and godwit; the
glossy ibis, and the great crested blue ibis with a powerful voice.
All these interested, I might say fascinated, me less than the tame
geese that spent most of their time in or on the borders of the marsh
in the company of the wild birds. The three old women were so fond of
their geese that they would not part with one for love or money; the
most they would ever do would be to present an egg, in the laying
season, to some visitor as a special mark of esteem.

It was a grand spectacle, when the entire flock, numbering upwards of
a thousand, stood up on the marsh and raised their necks on a person's
approach. It was grand to hear them, too, when, as often happened,
they all burst out in a great screaming concert. I can hear that
mighty uproar now!

With regard to the character of the sound: we have seen in a former
chapter that the poet Cowper thought not meanly of the domestic grey
goose as a vocalist, when heard on a common or even in a farmyard. But
there is a vast difference in the effect produced on the mind when the
sound is heard amid its natural surroundings in silent desert places.
Even hearing them as I did, from a distance, on that great marsh,
where they existed almost in a state of nature, the sound was not
comparable to that of the perfectly wild bird in his native haunts.
The cry of the wild grey-lag was described by Robert Gray in his Birds
of the West of Scotland. Of the bird's voice he writes: "My most
recent experiences (August 1870) in the Outer Hebrides remind me of a
curious effect which I noted in connection with the call-note of this
bird in these quiet solitudes. I had reached South Uist, and taken up
my quarters under the hospitable roof of Mr Birnie, at Grogarry ...
and in the stillness of the Sabbath morning following my arrival was
aroused from sleep by the cries of the grey-lags as they flew past the
house. Their voices, softened by distance, sounded not unpleasantly,
reminding me of the clanging of church bells in the heart of a large
town."

It is a fact, I think, that to many minds the mere wildness
represented by the voice of a great wild bird in his lonely haunts is
so grateful, that the sound itself, whatever its quality may be,
delights, and is more than the most beautiful music. A certain
distinguished man of letters and Church dignitary was once asked, a
friend tells me, why he lived away from society, buried in the
loneliest village on the dreary East coast; at that spot where,
standing on the flat desolate shore you look over the North Sea, and
have no land between you and far Spitzbergen. He answered, that he
made his home there because it was the only spot in England in which,
sitting in his own room, he could listen to the cry of the pink-footed
goose. Only those who have lost their souls will fail to understand.

The geese I have described, belonging to the three old women, could
fly remarkably well, and eventually some of them, during their flights
down stream, discovered at a distance of about eight miles from home
the immense, low, marshy plain bordering the sea-like Plata River.
There were no houses and no people in that endless green, wet land,
and they liked it so well that they visited it more and more often, in
small flocks of a dozen to twenty birds, going and coming all day
long, until all knew the road. It was observed that when a man on foot
or on horseback appeared in sight of one of these flocks, the birds at
this distance from home were as wary as really wild birds, and watched
the stranger's approach in alarm, and when he was still at a
considerable distance rose and flew away beyond sight.

The old dames grieved at this wandering spirit in their beloved birds,
and became more and more anxious for their safety. But by this time
the aged mother was fading visibly into the tomb, though so slowly
that long months went by while she lay on her bed, a weird-looking
object--I remember her well--leaner, greyer, more ghost-like, than the
silent, lean, grey heron on the marsh hard by. And at last she faded
out of life, aged, it was said by her descendants, a hundred and ten
years; and, after she was dead, it was found that of that great
company of noble birds there remained only a small remnant of about
forty, and these were probably incapable of sustained flight. The
others returned no more; but whether they met their death from duck
and swan shooters in the marshes, or had followed the great river down
to the sea, forgetting their home, was never known. For about a year
after they had ceased going back, small flocks were occasionally seen
in the marshes, very wild and strong on the wing, but even these, too,
vanished at last.

It is probable that, but for powder and shot, the domestic goose of
Europe, by occasionally taking to a feral life in thinly-settled
countries, would ere this have become widely distributed over the
earth.

And one wonders if in the long centuries running to thousands of
years, of tame flightless existence, the strongest impulse of the wild
migrant has been wholly extinguished in the domestic goose? We regard
him as a comparatively unchangeable species, and it is probable that
the unexercised faculty is not dead but sleeping, and would wake again
in favourable circumstances. The strength of the wild bird's passion
has been aptly described by Miss Dora Sigerson in her little poem,
"The Flight of the Wild Geese." The poem, oddly enough, is not about
geese but about men--wild Irishmen who were called Wild Geese; but the
bird's powerful impulse and homing faculty are employed as an
illustration, and admirably described:--

   Flinging the salt from their wings, and despair from their hearts
   They arise on the breast of the storm with a cry and are gone.
   When will you come home, wild geese, in your thousand strong?...
   Not the fierce wind can stay your return or tumultuous sea,...
   Only death in his reaping could make you return no more.

Now arctic and antarctic geese are alike in this their devotion to
their distant breeding-ground, the cradle and true home of the species
or race; and I will conclude this chapter with an incident related to
me many years ago by a brother who was sheep-farming in a wild and
lonely district on the southern frontier of Buenos Ayres. Immense
numbers of upland geese in great flocks used to spend the cold months
on the plains where he had his lonely hut; and one morning in August
in the early spring of that southern country, some days after all the
flocks had taken their departure to the south, he was out riding, and
saw at a distance before him on the plain a pair of geese. They were
male and female--a white and a brown bird. Their movements attracted
his attention and he rode to them. The female was walking steadily on
in a southerly direction, while the male, greatly excited, and calling
loudly from time to time, walked at a distance ahead, and constantly
turned back to see and call to his mate, and at intervals of a few
minutes he would rise up and fly, screaming, to a distance of some
hundreds of yards; then finding that he had not been followed, he
would return and alight at a distance of forty or fifty yards in
advance of the other bird, and begin walking on as before. The female
had one wing broken, and, unable to fly, had set out on her long
journey to the Magellanic Islands on her feet; and her mate, though
called to by that mysterious imperative voice in his breast, yet would
not forsake her; but flying a little distance to show her the way, and
returning again and again, and calling to her with his wildest and
most piercing cries, urged her still to spread her wings and fly with
him to their distant home.

And in that sad, anxious way they would journey on to the inevitable
end, when a pair or family of carrion eagles would spy them from a
great distance--the two travellers left far behind by their fellows,
one flying, the other walking; and the first would be left to continue
the journey alone.

Since this appreciation was written a good many years ago I have seen
much of geese, or, as it might be put, have continued my relations
with them and have written about them too in my Adventures among Birds
(1913). In recent years it has become a custom of mine to frequent
Wells-next-the-Sea in October and November just to welcome the wild
geese that come in numbers annually to winter at that favoured spot.
Among the incidents related in that last book of mine about the wild
geese, there were two or three about the bird's noble and dignified
bearing and its extraordinary intelligence, and I wish here to return
to that subject just to tell yet one more goose story: only in this
instance it was about the domestic bird.

It happened that among the numerous letters I received from readers of
Birds and Man on its first appearance there was one which particularly
interested me, from an old gentleman, a retired schoolmaster in the
cathedral city of Wells. He was a delightful letter-writer, but
by-and-bye our correspondence ceased and I heard no more of him for
three or four years. Then I was at Wells, spending a few days looking
up and inquiring after old friends in the place, and remembering my
pleasant letter-writer I went to call on him. During our conversation
he told me that the chapter which had impressed him most in my book
was the one on the goose, especially all that related to the lofty
dignified bearing of the bird, its independent spirit and fearlessness
of its human masters, in which it differs so greatly from all other
domestic birds. He knew it well; he had been feelingly persuaded of
that proud spirit in the bird, and had greatly desired to tell me of
an adventure he had met with, but the incident reflected so
unfavourably on himself, as a humane and fair-minded or sportsmanlike
person, that he had refrained. However, now that I had come to see him
he would make a clean breast of it.

It happened that in January some winters ago, there was a very great
fall of snow in England, especially in the south and west. The snow
fell without intermission all day and all night, and on the following
morning Wells appeared half buried in it. He was then living with a
daughter who kept house for him in a cottage standing in its own
grounds on the outskirts of the town. On attempting to leave the house
he found they were shut in by the snow, which had banked itself
against the walls to the height of the eaves. Half an hour's vigorous
spade work enabled him to get out from the kitchen door into the open,
and the sun in a blue sky shining on a dazzling white and silent
world. But no milkman was going his rounds, and there would be no
baker nor butcher nor any other tradesman to call for orders. And
there were no provisions in the house! But the milk for breakfast was
the first thing needed, and so with a jug in his hand he went bravely
out to try and make his way to the milk shop which was not far off.

A wall and hedge bounded his front garden on one side, and this was
now entirely covered by an immense snowdrift, sloping up to a height
of about seven feet. It was only when he paused to look at this vast
snow heap in his garden that he caught sight of a goose, a very big
snow-white bird without a grey spot in its plumage, standing within a
few yards of him, about four feet from the ground. Its entire snowy
whiteness with snow for a background had prevented him from seeing it
until he looked directly at it. He stood still gazing in astonishment
and admiration at this noble bird, standing so motionless with its
head raised high that it was like the figure of a goose carved out of
some crystalline white stone and set up at that spot on the glittering
snowdrift. But it was no statue; it had living eyes which without the
least turning of the head watched him and every motion he made. Then
all at once the thought came into his head that here was something,
very good succulent food in fact, sent, he almost thought
providentially, to provision his house; for how easy it would be for
him as he passed the bird to throw himself suddenly upon and capture
it! It had belonged to some one, no doubt, but that great snowstorm
and the furious north-east wind had blown it far far from its native
place and it was lost to its owner for ever. Practically it was now a
wild bird free for him to take without any qualms and to nourish
himself on its flesh while the snow siege lasted. Standing there, jug
in hand, he thought it out, and then took a few steps towards the bird
in order to see if there was any sign of suspicion in it; but there
was none, only he could see that the goose without turning its head
was all the time regarding him out of the corner of one eye. Finally
he came to the conclusion that his best plan was to go for the milk
and on his return to set the jug down by the gate when coming in, then
to walk in a careless, unconcerned manner towards the door, taking no
notice of the goose until he got abreast of it, and then turn suddenly
and hurl himself upon it. Nothing could be easier; so away he went and
in about twenty minutes was back again with the milk, to find the bird
in the same place standing as before motionless in the same attitude.
It was not disturbed at his coming in at the gate, nor did it show the
slightest disposition to move when he walked towards it in his studied
careless manner. Then, when within three yards of it, came the supreme
moment, and wheeling suddenly round he hurled himself with violence
upon his victim, throwing out his arms to capture it, and so great was
the impulse he had given himself that he was buried to the ankles in
the drift. But before going into it, in that brief moment, the
fraction of a second, he saw what happened; just as his hands were
about to touch it the wings opened and the bird was lifted from its
stand and out of his reach as if by a miracle. In the drift he was
like a drowning man, swallowing snow into his lungs for water. For a
few dreadful moments he thought it was all over with him; then he
succeeded in struggling out and stood trembling and gasping and
choking, blinded with snow. By-and-bye he recovered and had a look
round, and lo! there stood his goose on the summit of the snow bank
about three yards from the spot where it had been! It was standing as
before, perfectly motionless, its long neck and head raised, and was
still in appearance the snow-white figure of a carved bird, only it
was more conspicuous and impressive now, being outlined against the
blue sky, and as before it was regarding him out of the corner of one
eye. He had never, he said, felt so ashamed of himself in his life! If
the bird had screamed and fled from him it would not have been so bad,
but there it had chosen to remain, as if despising his attempt at
harming it too much even to feel resentment. A most uncanny bird! it
seemed to him that it had divined his intention from the first and had
been prepared for his every movement; and now it appeared to him to be
saying mentally: "Have you got no more plans to capture me in your
clever brain, or have you quite given it up?"

Yes, he had quite, quite given it up!

And then the goose, seeing there were no more plans, quietly unfolded
its wings and rose from the snowdrift and flew away over the town and
the cathedral away on the further side, and towards the snow-covered
Mendips; he standing there watching it until it was lost to sight in
the pale sky.



CHAPTER XII

THE DARTFORD WARBLER


HOW TO SAVE OUR RARE BIRDS

The most interesting chapter in John Burroughs' Fresh Fields
contains an account of an anxious hurried search after a
nightingale in song, at a time of the year when that "creature of
ebullient heart" somewhat suddenly drops into silence. A few days
were spent by the author in rushing about the country in Surrey
and Hampshire, with the result that once or twice a few musical
throbs of sound, a trill, a short detached phrase, were heard--just
enough to convince the eager listener that here was a vocalist
beautiful beyond all others, and that he had missed its music by
appearing a very few days too late on the scene.

During the last seven or eight years I have read this chapter
several times with undiminished interest, and with a feeling of
keen sympathy for the writer in his disappointment; for it is the
case that I, too, all this time, have been in chase of a
small British songster--a rare elusive bird, hard to find at any
time as it is to hear a nightingale pour out its full song in the
last week in June. In these years I have, at every opportunity, in
spring, summer, and autumn, sought for the bird in the southern
half of England, chiefly in the south and south-western counties.
In the Midlands, and in Devonshire, where he was formerly well
known, but where the authorities say he is now extinct, I failed
to find him. I found him altogether in four counties, in a few
widely-separated localities; in every case in such small numbers
that I was reluctantly forced to give up a long-cherished hope
that this species might yet recover from the low state, with
regard to numbers, in which it fingers, and be permanently
preserved as a member of the British avifauna.

It would indeed hardly be reasonable to entertain such a hope, when we
consider that the furze wren, or Dartford warbler, as it is named in
books, is a small, frail, insectivorous species, a feeble flyer that
must brave the winters at home; that down to within thirty years ago
it was fairly common, though local, in the south of England, and
ranged as far north as the borders of Yorkshire, and that in this
period it has fallen to its present state, when but a few pairs and
small colonies, wide apart, exist in isolated patches of furze in four
or five, possibly six, counties.

There can be no doubt that the decline of this species, which, on
account of its furze-loving habits, must always be restricted to
limited areas, is directly attributable to the greed of private
collectors, who are all bound to have specimens--as many as they can
get--both of the bird and its nest and eggs. Its strictly local
distribution made its destruction a comparatively easy task. In 1873
Gould wrote in his large work on British Birds: "All the commons south
of London, from Blackheath and Wimbledon to the coast, were formerly
tenanted by this little bird; but the increase in the number of
collectors has, I fear, greatly thinned them in all the districts near
the metropolis; it is still, however, very abundant in many parts of
Surrey and Hampshire." It did not long continue "very abundant." Gould
was shown the bird, and supplied with specimens, by a man named
Smithers, a bird-stuffer of Churt, who was at that time collecting
Dartford warblers and their eggs for the trade and many private
persons, on the open heath and gorse-grown country that lies between
Farnham and Haslemere. Gould in the work quoted, adds: "As most
British collectors must now be supplied with the eggs of the furze
wren, I trust Mr Smithers will be more sparing in the future." So
little sparing was he, that when he died, but few birds were left for
others of his detestable trade who came after him.

Three or four years ago I got in conversation with a heath-cutter on
Milford Common, a singular and brutal-looking fellow, of the
half-Gypsy Devil's Punch-Bowl type, described so ably by Baring-Gould
in his Broom Squire. He told me that when he was a boy, about
thirty-five years ago, the furze wren was common in all that part of
the country, until Smithers' offer of a shilling for every clutch of
eggs, had set the boys from all the villages in the district hunting
for the nests. Many a shilling had he been paid for the nests he
found, but in a few years the birds became rare; and he added that he
had not now seen one for a very long time.

In Clark's Kennedy's Birds of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire we get a
glimpse of the furze wren collecting business at an earlier date and
nearer the metropolis. In 1868 he wrote:--"The only locality in the
two counties in which this species is at all numerous, is a common in
the vicinity of Sunninghill, where it is found breeding every summer,
and from whence a person in the neighbourhood obtains specimens at all
times of the year, with which to supply the London bird-stuffers."

When the district worked by Smithers, and the neighbouring commons
round Godalming, where Newman in his Letters of Rusticus says he had
seen the "tops of the furze quite alive with these birds," had been
depleted, other favourite haunts of the little doomed furze-lover were
visited, and for a time yielded a rich harvest. In a few years the
bird was practically extirpated; in the sixties and seventies it was
common, now there are many young ornithologists with us who have never
seen it (in this country at all events) in a state of nature. In some
cases even persons interested in bird life, some of them naturalists
too, did not know what was going on in their immediate neighbourhood
until after the bird was gone. I met with a case of the kind, a very
strange case indeed, in the summer of 1899, at a place near the south
coast where the bird was common after it had been destroyed in Surrey,
but does not now exist. In my search for information I paid a visit to
the octogenarian vicar of a small rustic village. He was a native of
the parish, and loved his home above all places, even as White loved
Selborne, and had been a clergyman in it for over sixty years;
moreover he was, I was told, a keen naturalist, and though not a
collector nor a writer of books, he knew every plant and every wild
animal to be found in the parish. He better than another, I imagined,
would be able to give me some authentic local information.

I found him in his study--a tall, handsome, white-haired old man, very
feeble; he rose, and supporting his steps with a long staff, led me
out into the grounds and talked about nature. But his memory, like his
strength, was failing; he seemed, indeed, but the ruin of a man,
although still of a very noble presence. What he called the vicarage
gardens, where we strolled about among the trees, was a place without
walks, all overgrown with grass and wildings; for roses and dahlias he
showed me fennel, goat's-beard, henbane, and common hound's tongue;
and when speaking of their nature he stroked their leaves and stems
caressingly. He loved these better than the gardener's blooms, and so
did I; but I wanted to hear about the vanished birds of the district,
particularly the furze wren, which had survived all the others that
were gone.

His dim eyes brightened for a moment with old pleasant memories of
days spent in observing these birds; and leading me to a spot among
the trees, from which there was a view of the open country beyond, he
pointed to a great green down, a couple of miles away, and told me
that on the other side I would come on a large patch of furze, and
that by sitting quietly there for half an hour or so I might see a
dozen furze wrens. Then he added: "A dozen, did I say? Why, I saw not
fewer than forty or fifty flitting about the bushes the very last time
I went there, and I daresay if you are patient enough you will see
quite as many."

I assured him that there were no furze wrens at the spot he had
indicated, nor anywhere in that neighbourhood, and I ventured to add
that he must be telling me of what he had witnessed a good many years
ago. "No, not so many," he returned, "and I am astonished and grieved
to hear that the birds are gone--four or five years, perhaps. No, it
was longer ago. You are right--I think it must be at least fifteen
years since I went to that spot the last time. I am not so strong as I
was, and for some years have not been able to take any long walks."

Fifteen years may seem but a short space of time to a man verging on
ninety; in the mournful story of the extermination of rare and
beautiful British birds for the cabinet it is in reality a long
period. Fifteen years ago the honey buzzard was a breeding species in
England, and had doubtless been so for thousands of years. When the
price of a "British-killed" specimen rose to £25, and of a
"British-taken" egg to two or three or four pounds, the bird quickly
ceased to exist. Probably there is not a local ornithologist in all
the land who could not say of some species that bred annually, within
the limits of his own country, that it has not been extirpated within
the last fifteen years.

In the instance just related, when the aged vicar, sorrying at the
loss of the birds, began to recall the rare pleasure it had given him
to watch them disporting themselves among the furze-bushes, something
of the illusion which had been in his mind imparted itself to mine,
for I could see what he was mentally seeing, and the fifteen years
dwindled to a very brief space of time. Like Burroughs with the
nightingale, I, too, had arrived a few days too late on the scene; the
"cursed collector" had been beforehand with me, as had indeed been the
case on so many previous occasions with regard to other species.

A short time after my interview with the aged vicar, at an inn a very
few miles from the village, I met a person who interested me in an
exceedingly unpleasant way. He was a big repulsive-looking man in a
black greasy coat--a human animal to be avoided; but I overheard him
say something about rare birds which caused me to put on a friendly
air and join in the talk. He was a Kentish man who spent most of his
time in driving about from village to village, and from farm to farm,
in the southern counties, in search of bargains, and was prepared to
buy for cash down anything he could find cheap, from an old teapot, or
a print, or copper scuttle, to a horse, or cart, or pig, or a houseful
of furniture. He also bought rare birds in the flesh, or stuffed, and
was no doubt in league with a good many honest gamekeepers in those
counties. I had heard of "travellers" sent out by the great bird
stuffers to go the rounds of all the big estates in some parts of
England, but this scoundrel appeared to be a traveller in the business
on his own account. I asked him if he had done anything lately in
Dartford warblers. He at once became confidential, and said he had
done nothing but hoped shortly to do something very good indeed. The
bird, he said, was supposed to be extinct in Kent, and on that account
specimens obtained in that county would command a high price. Now he
had but recently discovered that a few--two or three pairs--existed at
one spot, and he was anxious to finish the business he had on hand so
as to go there and secure them. In answer to further questions, he
said that the birds were in a place where they could not very well be
shot, but that made no difference; he had a simple, effective way of
getting them without a gun, and he was sure that not one would escape
him.

On my mentioning the fact that the Kent County Council had obtained an
order for an all the year round protection of this very bird, he
looked at me out of the corners of his eyes and laughed, but said
nothing. He took it as a rather good joke on my part.

There is not the slightest doubt that our wealthy private collectors
have created the class of injurious wretches to which this man
belonged.

       *       *       *       *       *

To some who have glanced at a little dusty, out of shape mummy of a
bird, labelled "Dartford Warbler," in a museum, or private collection,
or under a glass shade, it may seem that I speak too warmly of the
pleasure which the sight of the small furze-lover can give us. They
have never seen it in a state of nature, and probably never will. When
I consider all these British Passeres, which, seen at their best, give
most delight to the æsthetic sense--the jay, the "British Bird of
Paradise," as I have ventured to call it, displaying his vari-coloured
feathers at a spring-time gathering; the yellow-green, long-winged
wood wren, most aërial and delicate of the woodland warblers; the
kingfisher, flashing turquoise blue as he speeds by; the elegant
fawn-coloured, black-bearded tit, clinging to the grey-green, swaying
reeds, and springing from them with a bell-like note; and the
rose-tinted narrow-shaped bottle-tit as he drifts by overhead in a
flock; the bright, lively goldfinch scattering the silvery
thistle-down on the air; the crossbill, that quaint little
many-coloured parrot of the north, feeding on a pine-cone; the grey
wagtail exhibiting his graceful motions; and the golden-crested wren,
seen suspended motionless with swiftly vibrating wings above his mate
concealed among the clustering leaves, in appearance a great green
hawk-moth, his opened and flattened crest a shining, flame-coloured
disc or shield on his head,--when I consider all these, and others, I
find that the peculiar charm of each does not exceed in degree that of
the furze wren--seen at his best. He is of the type of the
white-throat, but idealised; the familiar brown, excitable Sylvia,
pretty as he is and welcome to our hedges in April, is in appearance
but a rough study for the smaller, more delicately-fashioned and
richly-coloured Melizophilus, or furze-lover. On account of his
excessive rarity he can now be seen at his best only by those who are
able to spend many days in searching and in watching, who have the
patience to sit motionless by the hour; and at length the little
hideling, tired of concealment or overcome by curiosity, shows himself
and comes nearer and nearer, until the ruby red of the small gem-like
eye may been seen without aid to the vision. A sprite-like bird in his
slender exquisite shape and his beautiful fits of excitement;
fantastic in his motions as he flits and flies from spray to spray,
now hovering motionless in the air like the wooing gold-crest, anon
dropping on a perch, to sit jerking his long tail, his crest raised,
his throat swollen, chiding when he sings and singing when he chides,
like a refined and lesser sedge warbler in a frenzy, his slate-black
and chestnut-red plumage showing rich and dark against the pure
luminous yellow of the massed furze blossoms. It is a sight of
fairy-like bird life and of flower which cannot soon be forgotten. And
I do not think that any man who has in him any love of nature and of
the beautiful can see such a thing, and exist with its image in his
mind, and not regard with an extreme bitterness of hatred those among
us whose particular craze it is to "collect" such creatures, thereby
depriving us and our posterity of the delight the sight of them
affords.

Of many curious experiences I have met in my quest of the rare little
bird, or of information concerning it, I have related two or three: I
have one more to give--assuredly the strangest of all. I was out for a
day's ramble with the members of a Natural History Society, at a place
the name of which must not be told, and was walking in advance of the
others with a Mr A., the leading ornithologist of the county, one
whose name is honourably known to all naturalists in the kingdom. The
Dartford warbler, he said in the course of conversation, had unhappily
long been extinct in the county. Now it happened that among those just
behind us there was another local naturalist, also well known outside
his own county--Mr B., let us call him. When I separated from my
companion this gentleman came to my side, and said that he had
overheard some of our talk, and he wished me to know that Mr A. was in
error in saying that the Dartford warbler was extinct in the county.
There was one small colony of three or four pairs to be found at a
spot ten to eleven miles from where we then were; and he would be glad
to take me to the place and show me the birds. The existence of this
small remnant had been known for several years to half a dozen
persons, who had jealously kept the secret;--to their great regret
they had had to keep it from their best friend and chief supporter of
their Society, Mr A., simply because it would not be safe with him. He
was enthusiastic about the native bird life, the number of species the
county could boast, etc., and sooner or later he would incautiously
speak about the Dartford warbler, and the wealthy local collectors
would hear of it, with the result that the birds would quickly be
gathered into their cabinets.

My informant went on to say that the greatest offenders were four or
five gentlemen in the place who were zealous collectors. The county
had obtained a stringent order, with all-the-year-round protection for
its rare species. Much, too, had been done by individuals to create a
public opinion favourable to bird protection, and among the educated
classes there was now a strong feeling against the destruction by
private collectors of all that was best worth preserving in the local
wild bird life. But so far not the slightest effect had been produced
in the principal offenders. They would have the rare birds, both the
resident species and the occasional visitants, and paid liberally for
all specimens. Bird-stuffers, gamekeepers--their own and their
neighbours'--fowlers, and all those who had a keen eye for a feathered
rarity, were in their pay; and so the destruction went merrily on. The
worst of it was that the authors of the evil, who were not only
law-breakers themselves, but were paying others to break the law,
could not be touched; no one could prosecute nor openly denounce them
because of their important social position in the county.

There was nothing new to me in all this: it was an old familiar story;
I have given it fully, simply because it is an accurate statement of
what is being done all over the country. There is not a county in the
kingdom where you may not hear of important members of the community
who are collectors of birds and their eggs, and law-breakers, both
directly and indirectly, every day of their lives. They all take, and
pay for, every rare visitant that comes in their way, and also require
an unlimited supply of the rarer resident species for the purpose of
exchange with other private collectors in distant counties. In this
way our finest species are gradually being extirpated. Within the last
few years we have seen the disappearance (as breeding species) of the
ruff and reeve, marsh harrier, and honey buzzard; and the species now
on the verge of extinction, which will soon follow these and others
that have gone before, if indeed some of them have not already gone,
are the sea-eagle, osprey, kite, hen harrier, Montagu's harrier, stone
curlew, Kentish plover, dotterel, red-necked phalarope, roseate tern,
bearded tit, grey-lag goose, and great skua. These in their turn will
be followed by the chough, hobby, great black-backed gull, furze wren,
crested tit, and others. These are the species which, as things are
going, will absolutely and for ever disappear, as residents and
breeders, from off the British Islands. Meanwhile other species that,
although comparatively rare, are less local in their distribution, are
being annually exterminated in some parts of the country: it is poor
comfort to the bird lover in southern England to know that many
species that formerly gave life and interest to the scene, and have
lately been done to death there, may still be met with in the wilder
districts of Scotland, or in some forest in the north of Wales.
Finally, we have among our annual visitants a considerable number of
species which have either bred in these islands in past times (some
quite recently), or else would probably remain to breed if they were
not immediately killed on arrival--bittern, little bittern, night
heron, spoonbill, stork, avocet, black tern, hoopoe, golden oriole,
and many others of less well-known names.

This is the case, and that it is a bad one, and well-nigh hopeless, no
man will deny. Nevertheless, I believe that it may be possible to find
a remedy.

That "destruction of beautiful things," about which Ruskin wrote
despairingly, "of late ending in perfect blackness of catastrophe, and
ruin of all grace and glory in the land," has fallen, and continues to
fall, most heavily on the beautiful bird life of our country. But the
destruction has not been unremarked and unlamented, and the existence
of a strong and widespread public feeling in favour of the
preservation of our wild birds has of late shown itself in many ways,
especially in the unopposed legislation on the subject during the last
few years, and the willingness that Government and Parliament have
shown recently to consider a new Act. There is no doubt that this
feeling will grow until it becomes too strong even for the selfish
Philistines, who are blind to all grace and glory in nature, and
incapable of seeing anything in a rare and beautiful bird but an
object to be collected. Those who in the years to come will inherit
the numberless useless private collections now being formed will make
haste to rid themselves of such unhappy legacies, by thrusting them
upon local museums, or by destroying them outright in their anxiety to
have it forgotten that one of their name had a part in the detestable
business of depriving the land of these wonderful and beautiful forms
of life--a life which future generations would have cherished as a
dear and sacred possession.

But we cannot afford to wait: we have been made too poor in species
already, and are losing something further every year; we want a remedy
now.

So far two suggestions have been made. One is an alteration in the
existing law, which will allow the infliction of far heavier fines on
offenders. All those who are acquainted with collectors and their ways
will at once agree that increased penalties will not meet the case;
that the only effect of such an alteration in the law would be to make
collectors and the persons employed by them more careful than they
have yet found it necessary to be. The other suggestion vaguely put
forth is that something of the nature of a private inquiry agency
should be established to find out the offenders, and that they should
be pilloried in the columns of some widely-circulating journal, a
method which has been tried with some success in the cases of other
classes of obnoxious persons. This suggestion may be dismissed at once
as of no value; not one offence in a hundred would be discovered by
such means, and the greatest sinners, who are not infrequently the
most intelligent men, would escape scot free.

Perhaps I should have said that three suggestions have been made, for
there is yet another, put forward by Mr Richard Kearton in one of his
late books. He is thoroughly convinced, he tells us, that the County
Council orders are perfectly useless in the case of any and every rare
bird which collectors covet; and on that point we are all agreed; he
then says: "We should select a dozen species admitted by a committee
of practical ornithologists to be in danger, and afford them personal
protection during the whole of the breeding season by placing reliable
watchers, night and day, upon the nesting-ground."

Watchers provided and paid by individuals and associations have been
in existence these many years, and this is undoubtedly the best plan
in the case of all species which breed in colonies. These are mostly
sea-birds--gulls, terns, cormorants, guillemots, razor-bills, etc. Our
rare birds are distributed over the country, and in the case of some,
if a hundred pairs of a species exist in the British Islands, a
hundred or two hundred watchers would have to be engaged. But who that
has any knowledge of what goes on in the collecting world does not
know that the guarded birds would be the first to vanish? I have seen
such things--pairs of rare birds breeding in private grounds, where
the keepers had strict orders to watch over them, and no stranger
could enter without being challenged, and in a little while they have
mysteriously disappeared. The "watcher" is good enough on the exposed
sea-coast or island where an eye is kept on his doings, and where the
large number of birds in his charge enables him to do a little
profitable stealing and still keep up an appearance of honesty. I have
visited most of the watched colonies, and therefore know. The
watchers, who were paid a pound a week for guarding the nests, were
not chary of their hints, and I have also been told in very plain
words that I could have any eggs I wanted.

It is hardly necessary to say here that the proposed alteration in the
law to make it protective of all species will, so far as the private
collector is concerned, leave matters just as they are.

There is really only one way out of the difficulty,--one remedy for an
evil which grows in spite of penalties and of public opinion,--namely,
a law to forbid the making of collections of British birds by private
persons. If all that has been done in and out of Parliament since 1868
to preserve our wild birds--not merely the common abundant species,
which are not regarded by collectors, but all species--is not to be so
much labour wasted, such a law must sooner or later be made. It will
not be denied by any private collector, whether he clings to the old
delusion that it is to the advantage of science that he should have
cabinets full of "British killed" specimens or not,--it will not be
denied that the drain on our wild bird life caused by collecting is a
constantly increasing one, and that no fresh legislation on the lines
of previous bird protection Acts can arrest or diminish that drain.
Thirty years ago, when the first Act was passed, which prohibited the
slaughter of sea-birds during the breeding season, the drain on the
bird life which is valued by collectors was far less than it is now;
not only because there are a dozen or more collectors now where there
was one in the sixties, but also because the business of collecting
has been developed and brought to perfection. All the localities in
which the rare resident species may be looked for are known, while the
collectors all over the country are in touch with each other, and have
a system of exchanges as complete as it is deadly to the birds. Then
there is the money element; bird-collecting is not only the hobby of
hundreds of persons of moderate means and of moderate wealth, but,
like horse-racing, yachting, and other expensive forms of sport, it
now attracts the very wealthy, and is even a pastime of millionaires.
All this is a familiar fact, and clearly shows that without such a law
as I have suggested it has now become impossible to save the best of
our wild bird life.

The collectors will doubtless cry out that such a law would be a
monstrous injustice, and an unwarrantable interference with the
liberty of the subject; that there is really no more harm in
collecting birds and their eggs than in collecting old prints,
Guatemalan postage stamps, samplers, and first editions of minor
poets; that to compel them to give up their treasures, which have cost
them infinite pains and thousands of pounds to get together, and to
abandon the pursuit in which their happiness is placed, would be worse
than confiscation and downright tyranny; that the private collectors
cannot properly be described as law-breakers and injurious persons,
since they count among their numbers hundreds of country gentlemen of
position, professional men (including clergymen), noblemen,
magistrates, and justices of the peace, and distinguished
naturalists--all honourable men.

To put in one word on this last very delicate point: Where, in
collecting, does the honourable man draw the line, and sternly refuse
to enrich his cabinet with a long-wished-for specimen of a rare
British species?--a specimen "in the flesh," not only "British killed"
but obtained in the county; not killed wantonly, nor stolen by some
poaching rascal, but unhappily shot in mistake for something else by
an ignorant young under-keeper, who, in fear of a wigging, took it
secretly to a friend at a distance and gave it to him to get rid of.
The story of the unfortunate killing of the rare bird varies in each
case when it has to be told to one whose standard of morality is very
high even with regard to his hobby. My experience is, that where there
are collectors who are men of means, there you find their parasites,
who know how to treat them, and who feed on their enthusiasms.

In my rambles about the country during the last few years, I have
neglected no opportunity of conversing with landowners and large
tenants on this subject, and, with the exception of one man, all those
I have spoken to agreed that owners generally--not nine in every ten,
as I had put it, but ninety-nine in every hundred--would gladly
welcome a law to put down the collecting of British birds by private
persons. The one man who disagreed is the owner of an immense estate,
and he was the bitterest of all in denouncing the scoundrels who came
to steal his birds; and if a law could be made to put an end to such
practices he would, he said, be delighted; but he drew the line at
forbidding a man to collect birds on his own property. "No, no!" he
concluded; "that would be an interference with the liberty of the
subject." Then it came out that he was a collector himself, and was
very proud of the rare species in his collection! If I had known that
before, I should not have gone out of my way to discuss the subject
with him.

Clearly, then, there is a very strong case for legislation. How strong
the case is I am not yet able to show, my means not having enabled me
to carry out an intention of discussing the subject with a much
greater number of landowners, and of addressing a circular later
stating the case to all the landlords and shooting-tenants in the
country. That remains to be done; in the meantime this chapter will
serve to bring the subject to the attention of a considerable number
of persons who would prefer that our birds should be preserved rather
than that they should be exterminated in the interests of a certain
number of individuals whose amusement it is to collect such objects.

That a law on the lines suggested will be made sooner or later is my
belief: that it may come soon is my hope and prayer, lest we have to
say of the Dartford warbler, and of twenty other species named in this
chapter, as we have had to say of so many others that have gone

   The beautiful is vanished and returns not.

       *       *       *       *       *

   Note.--The foregoing chapter, albeit written so many years ago,
   is still "up-to-date"--still represents without a shadow of a
   shade of difference the state of the case. The extermination of
   our rare birds and "occasional visitors" still goes merrily on
   in defiance of the law, and the worst offenders are still
   received with open arms by the British Ornithologists' Union.
   Indeed, that Society, from the point of view of many of its
   members would have no raison d'être if membership were denied
   to the private collector of rare "British killed" birds and
   their eggs and to the "scientific" ornithologist whose mission
   is to add several new species annually to the British list.
   They still dine together and exhibit their specimens to one
   another. On the last occasion of my attending one of these
   meetings a member exhibited a small bird "in the flesh"--a bird
   from some far country which had been shot somewhere on the east
   coast and was so knocked to pieces by the shot that the
   ornithologists had great difficulty in identifying it. Although
   a collector himself he was anxious to dispose of the specimen,
   but none of his brother collectors would give him a five-pound
   note for it owing to its condition. It was handed round and
   examined and discussed by all the authorities present. I stood
   apart, looking at a group of ornithologists bending over the
   shattered specimen, all talking and arguing, when another
   member who by chance was not a collector moved to my side and
   whispered in my ear: "Just like a lot of little children!"

   Is it not time to say to these "little children" that they must
   find a new toy--a fresh amusement to fill their vacant hours:
   that birds--living flying birds--are a part of nature, of this
   visible world in this island, the dwelling-place of some
   forty-five or fifty millions of souls; that these millions have
   a right in the country's wild life too--surely a better one
   than that of a few hundreds of gentlemen of leisure who have
   money to hire gamekeepers, bird-stuffers, wild-fowlers, and
   many others, to break the law for them, and to take the
   punishment when any is given?

   By saying it will be understood that I mean enacting a law to
   prohibit private collection. It is surely time. But what
   prospects are there of such an Act being passed by a Parliament
   which has spent six years playing with a Plumage Prohibition
   Bill!

   Well, just now we have a committee appointed by the Government
   to consider the whole question of bird protection with a view
   to fresh legislation. Will this committee recommend the one and
   only way to put a stop to the continuous destruction of our
   rarer birds? I don't think so. For such a law would be aimed at
   those of their own class, at their friends, at themselves.

   At the end of the chapter I gave an account of an interview I
   had with a great landowner who happened to be a collector, and
   who cried out that such a law as the one I suggested would be
   an unwarrantable interference with the liberty of the subject.
   Another interview years later was with one who is not only a
   landowner, the head of a branch of a great family in the land,
   but a great power in the political world as well, and, finally,
   (not wonderful to relate) a great "protector of birds." "No,"
   he said warmly, "I will not for a moment encourage you to hope
   that any good will come of such a proposal. If any person
   should bring in such a measure I would do everything in my
   power to defeat it. I am a collector myself and I am perfectly
   sure that such an interference with the liberty of the subject
   would not be tolerated."

   That, I take it, is or will be the attitude of the committee
   now considering the subject of our wild bird life and its
   better protection.



CHAPTER XIII

VERT--VERT; OR PARROT GOSSIP


I am not an admirer of pet parrots. To me, and I have made the
discovery that to many others too, it is a depressing experience, on a
first visit to nice people, to find that a parrot is a member of the
family. As a rule he is the most important member. When I am compelled
to stand in the admiring circle, to look on and to listen while he
exhibits his weary accomplishments, it is but lip service that I
render: my eyes are turned inward, and a vision of a green forest
comes before them resounding with the wild, glad, mad cries of flocks
of wild parrots. This is done purposely, and the sound which I
mentally hear and the sight of their vari-coloured plumage in the
dazzling sunlight are a corrective, and keep me from hating the bird
before me because of the imbecility of its owners. In his proper
place, which is not in a tin cage in a room of a house, he is to be
admired above most birds; and I wish I could be where he is living his
wild life; that I could have again a swarm of parrots, angry at my
presence, hovering above my head and deafening me with their
outrageous screams. But I cannot go to those beautiful distant
places--I must be content with an image and a memory of things seen
and heard, and with the occasional sight of a bird, or birds, kept by
some intelligent person; also with an occasional visit to the Parrot
House in Regent's Park. There the uproar, when it is at its greatest,
when innumerable discordant voices, shrill and raucous, unite in one
voice and one great cry, and persons of weak nerves stop up their ears
and fly from such a pandemonium, is highly exhilarating.

Of the most interesting captive parrots I have met in recent years I
will speak here of two. The first was a St Vincent bird, Chrysotis
guildingi, brought home with seven other parrots of various species by
Lady Thompson, the wife of the then Administrator of the Island. This
is a handsome bird, green, with blue head and yellow tail, and is a
member of an American genus numbering over forty species. He received
his funny specific name in compliment to a clergyman who was a zealous
collector not of men's souls, but of birds' skins. To ornithologists
this parrot is interesting on account of its rarity. For the last
thirty years it has existed in small numbers; and as it is confined to
the island of St Vincent it is feared that it may become extinct at no
distant date. Altogether there are about five hundred species of
parrots in the world, or about as many parrots as there are species of
birds of all kinds in Europe, from the great bustard, the hooper swan,
and golden eagle, to the little bottle-tit whose minute body, stript
of its feathers, may be put in a lady's thimble. And of this multitude
of parrots the St Vincent Chrysotis, if it still exists, is probably
the rarest.

The parrot I have spoken of, with his seven travelling companions,
arrived in England in December, and a few days later their mistress
witnessed a curious thing. On a cold grey morning they were enjoying
themselves on their perches in a well-warmed room in London, before a
large window, when suddenly they all together emitted a harsh cry of
alarm or terror--the sound which they invariably utter on the
appearance of a bird of prey in the sky, but at no other time. Looking
up quickly she saw that snow in big flakes had begun to fall. It was
the birds' first experience of such a phenomenon, but they had seen
and had been taught to fear something closely resembling falling
flakes--flying feathers to wit. The fear of flying feathers is
universal among species that are preyed upon by hawks. In a majority
of cases the birds that exhibit terror and fly into cover or sit
closely have never actually seen that winged thunderbolt, the
peregrine falcon, strike down a duck or pigeon, sending out a small
cloud of feathers; or even a harrier or sparrow-hawk pulling out and
scattering the feathers of a bird it has captured, but a tradition
exists among them that the sight of flying feathers signifies danger
to bird life.

When I was in the young barbarian stage, and my playmates were gaucho
boys on horseback on the pampas, they taught me to catch partridges in
their simple way with a slender cane twenty to twenty-five feet long,
a running noose at its tip made from the fine pliant shaft of a rhea's
wing feather. The bird was not a real partridge though it looks like
it, but was the common or spotted tinamou of the plains, Nothura
maculosa, as good a table bird as our partridge. Our method was, when
we flushed a bird, to follow its swift straight flight at a gallop,
and mark the exact spot where it dropped to earth and vanished in the
grass, then to go round the spot examining the ground until the
tinamou was detected in spite of his protective colouring sitting
close among the dead and fading grass and herbage. The cane was put
out, the circle narrowed until the small noose was exactly over the
bird's head, so that when he sprang into the air on being touched by
the slender tip of the cane he caught and strangled himself. To make
the bird sit tight until the noose was actually over his head, we
practised various tricks, and a very common one was, on catching sight
of the close-squatting partridge, to start plucking feathers from a
previously-killed bird hanging to our belt and scatter them on the
wind. Sometimes we were saved the trouble of scattering feathers when
we were followed by a pair of big carrion hawks on the look-out for an
escaped bird or for any trifle we throw to them to keep them with us.
The effect was the same in both cases; the sight of the flying
feathers was just as terrifying as that of the big hovering hawks, and
caused the partridge to sit close.

This way of taking the tinamou may seem unsportsmanlike. Well, if I
were a boy in a wild land again--with my present feelings about bird
life, I mean--I should not do it. Nor would I shoot them; for I take
it that the gun is the deadliest instrument our cunning brains have
devised to destroy birds in spite of their bright instinct of
self-preservation, their faculty of flight, and their intelligence. It
is a hundred times more effective than the boy-on-horseback's long
cane with its noose made of an ostrich feather--therefore more
unsportsmanlike.

To return. The resemblance of falling flakes to flying white feathers
does not deceive birds accustomed to the sight of snow: it is very
striking, nevertheless, and so generally recognised that most persons
in Europe have heard of the old woman plucking her geese in the sky.
It is curious to find the subject discussed in Herodotus. In Book IV.
he says: "The Scythians say that those lands which are situated in the
northernmost parts of their territories are neither visible nor
practicable by reason of the feathers that fall continually on all
sides; for the earth is so entirely covered, and the air is so full of
these feathers, that the sight is altogether obstructed." Further on
he says: "Touching the feathers ... my opinion is that perpetual snows
fall in those parts, though probably in less quantity during the
summer than in winter, and whoever has observed great abundance of
snow falling will easily comprehend what I say, for snow is not unlike
feathers."

Probably the Scythians had but one word to designate both. To go back
to the St Vincent parrot. Concerning a bird of that species I have
heard, and cannot disbelieve, a remarkable story. During the early
years of the last century a gentleman went out from England to look
after some landed property in the island, which had come to him by
inheritance, and when out there he paid a visit to a friend who had a
plantation in the interior. His friend was away when he arrived, and
he was conducted by a servant into a large, darkened, cool room; and,
tired with his long ride in the hot sun, he soon fell asleep in his
chair. Before long a loud noise awoke him, and from certain scrubbing
sounds he made out that a couple of negro women were engaged in
washing close to him, on the other side of the lowered window blinds,
and that they were quarrelling over their task. Of course the poor
women did not know that he was there, but he was a man of a sensitive
mind and it was a torture to him to have to listen to the torrents of
exceedingly bad language they discharged at one another. It made him
angry. Presently his friend arrived and welcomed him with a hearty
hand-shake and asked him how he liked the place. He answered that it
was a very beautiful place, but he wondered how his friend could
tolerate those women with their tongues so close to his windows. Women
with their tongues! What did he mean? exclaimed the other in great
surprise. He meant, he said, those wretched nigger washerwomen outside
the window. His host thereupon threw up the blind and both looked out:
no living creature was there except a St Vincent parrot dozing on his
perch in the shaded verandah. "Ah, I see, the parrot!" said his
friend. And he apologised and explained that some of the niggers had
taken advantage of the bird's extraordinary quickness in learning to
teach him a lot of improper stuff.

Another parrot, which interested me more than the St Vincent bird, was
a member of the same numerous genus, a double-fronted amazon,
Chrysotis lavalainte, a larger bird, green with face and fore-part of
head pure yellow, and some crimson colour in the wings and tail. I
came upon it at an inn, the Lamb, at Hindon, a village in the South
Wiltshire downs. One could plainly see that it was a very old bird,
and, judging from the ragged state of its plumage, that it had long
fallen into the period of irregular or imperfect moult--"the sere, the
yellow leaf" in the bird's life. It also had the tremor of the very
aged--man or bird. But its eyes were still as bright as polished
yellow gems and full of the almost uncanny parrot intelligence. The
voice, too, was loud and cheerful; its call to its mistress--"Mother,
mother!" would ring through the whole rambling old house. He talked
and laughed heartily and uttered a variety of powerful whistling notes
as round and full and modulated as those of any grey parrot. Now, all
that would not have attracted me much to the bird if I had not heard
its singular history, told to me by its mistress, the landlady. She
had had it in her possession fifty years, and its story was as
follows:--

Her father-in-law, the landlord of the Lamb, had a beloved son who
went off to sea and was seen and heard of no more for a space of
fourteen years, when one day he turned up in the possession of a
sailor's usual fortune, acquired in distant barbarous lands--a parrot
in a cage! This he left with his parents, charging them to take the
greatest care of it, as it was really a very wonderful bird, as they
would soon know if they could only understand its language, and he
then began to make ready to set off again, promising his mother to
write this time and not to stay away more than five or at most ten
years.

Meanwhile, his father, who was anxious to keep him, succeeded in
bringing about a meeting between him and a girl of his acquaintance,
one who, he believed, would make his son the best wife in the world.
The young wanderer saw and loved, and as the feeling was returned he
soon married and endowed her with all his worldly possessions, which
consisted of the parrot and cage. Eventually he succeeded his father
as tenant of the Lamb, where he died many years ago; the widow was
grey when I first knew her and old like her parrot; and she was like
the bird too in her youthful spirit and the brilliance of her eyes.

Her young sailor had picked up the bird at Vera Cruz in Mexico. He saw
a girl standing in the market place with the parrot on her shoulder.
She was talking and singing to the bird, and the bird was talking,
whistling, and singing back to her--singing snatches of songs in
Spanish. It was a wonderful bird, and he was enchanted and bought it,
and brought it all the way back to England and Wiltshire. It was, the
girl had told him, just five years old, and as fifty years had gone by
it was, when I first knew it, or was supposed to be, fifty-five. In
its Wiltshire home it continued to talk and sing in Spanish, and had
two favourite songs, which delighted everybody, although no one could
understand the words. By and by it took to learning words and
sentences in English, and spoke less in Spanish year after year until
in about ten to twelve years that language had been completely
forgotten. Its memory was not as good as that of Humboldt's celebrated
parrot of the Maipures, which had belonged to the Apures tribe before
they were exterminated by the Caribs. Their language perished with
them, only the long-living parrot went on talking it. This parrot
story took the fancy of the public and was re-told in a hundred books,
and was made the subject of poems in several countries--one by our own
"Pleasures of Hope" Campbell.

Nevertheless I thought it would be worth while trying a little Spanish
on old Polly of the Lamb, and thought it best to begin by making
friends. It was of little use to offer her something to eat. Poll was
a person who rather despised sweeties and kickshaws. It had been the
custom of the house for half a century to allow Polly to eat what she
liked and when she liked, and as she--it was really a he--was of a
social disposition she preferred taking her meals with the family and
eating the same food. At breakfast she would come to the table and
partake of bacon and fried eggs, also toast and butter and jam and
marmalade, at dinner it was a cut off the joint with (usually) two
vegetables, then pudding or tart with pippins and cheese to follow.
Between meals she amused herself with bird seed, but preferred a meaty
mutton-bone, which she would hold in one hand or foot and feed on with
great satisfaction. It was not strange that when I held out food for
her she took it as an insult, and when I changed my tactics and
offered to scratch her head she lost her temper altogether, and when I
persisted in my advances she grew dangerous and succeeded in getting
in several nips with her huge beak, which drew blood from my fingers.

It was only then, after all my best blandishments had been exhausted,
and when our relations were at their worst, that I began talking to
her in Spanish, in a sort of caressing falsetto like a "native" girl,
calling her "Lorito" instead of Polly, coupled with all the endearing
epithets commonly used by the women of the green continent in
addressing their green pets. Polly instantly became attentive. She
listened and listened, coming down nearer to listen better, the one
eye she fixed on me shining like a fiery gem. But she spoke no word,
Spanish or English, only from time to time little low inarticulate
sounds came from her. It was evident after two or three days that she
was powerless to recall the old lore, but to me it also appeared
evident that some vague memory of a vanished time had been
evoked--that she was conscious of a past and was trying to recall it.
At all events the effect of the experiment was that her hostility
vanished, and we became friends at once. She would come down to me,
step on to my hand, climb to my shoulder, and allow me to walk about
with her.

It saddened me a few months later to receive a letter from her
mistress announcing Polly's death, on 2nd December 1909.

I have thought since that this bird, instead of being only five years
old when bought, was probably aged twenty-five years or more.
Naturally, the girl who had been sent into the market-place to dispose
of the bird would tell a possible buyer that it was young; the parrots
one wants to buy are generally stated to be five years old. However,
it may be that the bird grew old before its time on account of its
extraordinary dietary. The parrot may have an adaptive stomach, still,
one is inclined to think that half a century of fried eggs and bacon,
roast pork, boiled beef and carrots, steak and onions, and stewed
rabbit must have put a rather heavy strain on its system.

Many parrots have lived longer than Polly in captivity, long as her
life was; and here it strikes me as an odd circumstance that Polly's
specific name was bestowed on the species, the double-fronted amazon,
as a compliment to the distinguished French ornithologist, La
Valainte, who has himself recorded the greatest age to which a captive
parrot has been known to attain. This bird was the familiar African
grey species. He says that it began to lose its memory at the age of
sixty, to moult irregularly at sixty-five, that it became blind at
ninety, and died aged ninety-three.

We may well believe that if parrots are able to exist for fifty years to
a century in the unnatural conditions in which they are kept, caged or
chained in houses, over-fed, without using their enormously-developed
wing-muscles, the constant exercise of which must be necessary to
perfect health and vigour, their life in a state of nature must be twice
as long.

To return to parrots in general. This bird has perhaps more points of
interest for us than any other of the entire class: his long life,
unique form, and brilliant colouring, extreme sociability,
intelligence beyond that of most birds, and, last, his faculty of
imitating human speech more perfectly than the birds of other
families.

The last is to most persons the parrot's greatest distinction; to me
it is his least. I do not find it so wonderful as the imitative
faculty of some mocking birds or even of our delightful little
marsh-warbler, described in another book. This may be because I have
never had the good fortune to meet with a shining example, for we know
there is an extraordinary difference in the talking powers of parrots,
even in those of the same species--differences as great, in fact, as
we find in the reasoning faculty between dog and dog, and in the songs
of different birds of the same species. Not once but on several
occasions I have heard a song from some common bird which took my
breath away with astonishment. I have described in another book
certain blackbirds of genius I have encountered. And what a wonderful
song that caged canary in a country inn must have had, which tempted
the great Lord Peterborough, a man of some shining qualities, to get
the bird from its mistress, an old woman who loved it and refused to
sell it to him, by means of a dishonest and very mean trick. Denied
the bird, he examined it minutely and went on his way. In due time he
returned with a canary closely resembling the one he wanted in size,
colour, and markings, concealed on his person. He ordered dinner, and
when the good woman was gone from the room to prepare it, changed his
bird for hers, then, having had his meal, went on his way rejoicing.
Still he was curious to learn the effect of his trick, and whether or
not she had noticed any difference in her loved bird; so, after a long
interval, he came once more to the inn, and seeing the bird in its
cage in the old place began to speak in praise of its beautiful
singing as he had heard it and remembered it so well. She replied
sadly that since he listened to and wanted to buy it an unaccountable
change had come over her bird. It was silent for a spell, perhaps
sick, but when it resumed singing its voice had changed and all the
beautiful notes which everyone admired were lost. The great man
expressed his regret, and went away chuckling at his deliciously funny
joke.

The ordinary talking parrot is no more to me than the ordinary or
average canary, piping his thin expressionless notes; he is a prodigy
I am pleased not to know. On the other hand there are numerous
authenticated cases of parrots possessed of really surprising powers,
and it was doubtless the mimicking powers of such birds of genius
which suggested such fictions as that of the Totá Kuhami in the East;
and in Europe, Gresset's lively tale of Vert Vert and the convent
nuns.

It was perhaps a parrot of this rare kind which played so important a
part in the early history of South America. It is nothing but a legend
of the Guarani nation, which inhabit Paraguay, nevertheless I do
believe that we have here an account mainly true of an important event
in the early history of the race or nation. This parrot is not the
impossible bird of the fictitious Totá Kahami order we all know, who
not only mimics our speech but knows the meaning of the words he
utters. He was nothing but a mimic, exceptionally clever, and the
moral of the story is the familiar one that great events may proceed
from the most trivial causes, once the passions of men are inflamed.

The tradition was related centuries ago to the Jesuit Fathers in
Paraguay, and I give it as they tell it, briefly.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the beginning a great canoe came over the waters from the east and
was stranded on the shores of Brazil. Out of the canoe came the
brothers Tupi and Guarani and their sons and daughters with their
husbands and wives and their children and children's children.

Tupi was the leader, and being the eldest was called the father, and
Tupi said to his brother: Behold, this great land with all its rivers
and forests, abounding in fish and birds and beasts and fruit, is
ours, for there are no other men dwelling in it; but we are few in
number, let us therefore continue to live together with our children
in one village.

Guarani consented, and for many years they lived together in peace and
amity like one family, until at last there came a quarrel to divide
them. And it was all about a parrot that could talk and laugh and sing
just like a man. A woman first found it in the forest, and not wishing
to burden herself with the rearing of it she gave it to another woman.
So well did it learn to talk from its new mistress that everybody
admired it and it grew to be the talk of the village.

Then the woman who had found and brought it, seeing how much it was
admired and talked about, went and claimed it as her own. The other
refused to give it up, saying that she had reared it and had taught it
all it knew, and by doing so had become its rightful owner.

Now, no person could say which was in the right, and the dispute was
not ended and tongues continued wagging until the husbands of the two
women became engaged in the quarrel. And then brothers and sisters and
cousins were drawn into it, until the whole village was full of
bitterness and strife, all because of the parrot, and men of the same
blood for the first time raised weapons against one another. And some
were wounded and others killed in open fight, and some were
treacherously slain when hunting in the forest.

Now when things had come to this pass Tupi the Father, called his
brother to him and said: O brother Guarani, this is a day of grief to
us who had looked to the spending of our remaining years together with
all our children at this place where we have lived so long. Now this
can no longer be on account of the great quarrel about a parrot, and
the shedding of blood; for only by separating our two families can we
save them from destroying one another. Come then, let us divide them
and lead them away in opposite directions, so that when we settle
again they may be far apart. Guarani consented, and he also said that
Tupi was the elder and their head, and was called the Father, and it
was therefore in his right to remain in possession of the village and
of all that land and to end his days in it. He, on his part, would
call his people together and lead them to a land so distant that the
two families would never see nor hear of each other again, and there
would be no more bitter words and strife between them.

Then the two old brothers bade each other an eternal farewell, and
Guarani led his people south a great distance and travelled many moons
until he came to the River Paraguay, and settled there; and his people
still dwell there and are called by his name to this day.

Only, I beg to add, they do not call their nation by that word, as the
Spanish colonists first spelt it in their carelessness, and as they
pronounce it. Heaven knows how we pronounce it! They, the Guarani
people, call themselves Wä-rä-nä-eé, in a soft musical voice. Also
they call their river, which we spell Paraguay, and pronounce I don't
know how, Pä-rä-wä-eé.



CHAPTER XIV

SOMETHING PRETTY IN A GLASS CASE


It was said by a Norfolk naturalist more than three-quarters of a
century ago, that the desire to possess "something pretty in a glass
case" caused the killing of very many birds, especially of such as
were rare and beautiful, which if allowed to exist in our country
would maintain the species and be a constant source of pleasure to all
who beheld them. For who, walking by a riverside, does not experience
a thrill of delight at the sudden appearance in the field of vision of
that living jewel, the shining blue kingfisher! This is one of the
favourites of all who desire to have something pretty in a glass case
in the cottage parlour in room of the long-vanished pyramid of wax
flowers and fruit. It is, however, not only the common people, the
cottager and the village publican who desire to possess such
ornaments. You see them also in baronial halls. Many a time on
visiting a great house the first thing the owner has drawn my
attention to has been his stuffed birds in a glass case: but in the
great houses the peregrine, and hobby, and goshawk, and buzzard and
harrier are more prized than the kingfisher and other pretty little
birds.

The Philistine we know is everywhere and is of all classes.

It is to me a cause of astonishment that these mournful mementoes
should be regarded as they appear to be, as objects pleasing to the
eye, like pictures and statues, tapestries, and other decorative works
of art. The sight of a stuffed bird in a house is revolting to me; it
outrages our sense of fitness, and is as detestable as stuffed birds
and wings, tails and heads, and beaks of murdered and mutilated birds
on women's headgear. "Properly speaking," said St George Mivart in his
greatest work, "there is no such thing as a dead bird." The life is
the bird, and when that has gone out what remains is the case. These
dead empty cases are as much to me as to any naturalist, and I can
examine the specimens in a museum cabinet with interest. But the
mental attitude is changed at the sight of these same dead empty cases
set up in imitation of the living creature; and the more cleverly the
stuffer has done his work the more detestable is the result.

It may be that some vague notion of a faint remnant of life lingering
in the life-like specimen with glass eyes, is the cause of my hatred
of the feathered ornament in a glass case. At all events I have had
one experience, to be related here, which has almost made me believe
that the idea of a sort of post-mortem life in the stuffed bird is not
wholly fanciful. I will call it:


A DIALOGUE OF THE DEAD (AND STUFFED)

Ever since I came the wind has been blowing a gale on this
furthermost, lonely, melancholy coast, as if I had got not only to the
Land's End, but to the end of the world itself, to the confines of Old
Chaos his kingdom, a region where the elements are in everlasting
conflict. Two or three times during the afternoon I have resolutely
put on my cap and water-proof and gone out to face it, only to be
quickly driven in again by the bitter furious blast. Yet it was almost
as bad indoors to have to sit and listen by the hour to its ravings.
From time to time I get up and look through the window-pane at the few
cold grey naked cottages and empty bleak fields, divided by naked grey
stone fences, and, beyond the fields, the foam-flecked, colder,
greyer, more desolate ocean. Would it be better, I wonder, to fight my
way down to those wave-loosened masses of granite by the sea, where I
would hear the roar and thunder of the surf instead of this perpetual
insane howling and screaming of the wind round the house? I turn from
the window with a shiver; a splash of rain hurled against it has
blotted the landscape out; I go back once more to my comfortable
easy-chair by the fire. Patience! Patience! By and by, I say to
myself--I say it many times over--daylight will be gone; then the lamp
will be brought in, the curtains drawn, and tea will follow, with
buttered toast and other good things. Then the solacing pipe, and
thoughts and memories and some pleasant waking drawn to while away the
time.

What shall this dream be? Ah, what but the best of all possible dreams
on such a day as this--a dream of spring! Somewhere in the sweet west
country I shall stand in a wood where beeches grow; and it will be
April, near the end of the month, before the leaves are large enough
to hide the blue sky and the floating white clouds so far above their
tops. Perhaps I shall sit down on one of the huge root-branches,
"coiled like a grey old snake," so as to gaze at ease before me at the
cloud of purple-red boughs, and interlacing twigs, sprinkled over with
golden buds and silky opening leaves of a fresh brilliant green that
has no match on the earth or sea, nor under the earth in the emerald
mines. I shall watch the love-flight of the cushat above the wood,
mounting higher and higher, then gliding down on motionless
dove-coloured wings; and I shall listen to the wood wren, ever
wandering and singing in the tree-tops--singing that same insistent,
passionate--passionless strain to which one could listen for ever.

I shall ask for no other song, but there will be other creatures
there. Down the tall grey trunk of a beech tree before me a squirrel
will slip--down, down nearly to the mossy roots, then pause and remain
so motionless as to seem like a squirrel-shaped patch of bright
chestnut-red moss or lichen or alga on the grey bark. And on the next
tree, but a little distance off, I shall presently catch sight of
another listener and watcher--a green woodpecker clinging vertically
against the trunk, so still as to look like a bird figure carved in
wood and painted green and gold and crimson.

Just when I had got so far with the thought of what my dream was to
be, I raised my eyes from the fire and allowed them to rest
attentively for the first time on a collection of ornaments crowded
together in a niche in the wall at the side of the fireplace. The
ornamental objects one sees in a cottage are as a rule offensive to
me, and I have acquired the habit of not seeing them; now I was
compelled to look at these. There were photographs, little china vases
and cups with boys or cupids, and things of that kind; these I did not
regard; my whole attention was directed to a pair of glass-fronted
cases and the living creatures in them. They were not really alive,
but dead and stuffed and set up in life-like attitudes, and one was a
squirrel, the other a green woodpecker. The squirrel with his back to
his neighbour sat up on his mossy wood, his bushy tail thrown along
his back, his two little hands grasping a hazel-nut, which he was in
the act of conveying to his mouth. The green woodpecker was placed
vertically against his branch, his side towards his neighbour, his
head turned partly round so that he looked directly at him with one
eye. That wide-open white glass eye and the whole attitude of the
bird, with his wings half open and beak raised, gave him a wonderfully
alert look, so that after regarding him fixedly for some time I began
to imagine that, despite the old dead dusty look of the feathers,
there was something of life still remaining in him and that he really
was watching his neighbour with the nut very intently.

Why, of course he was alive--alive and speaking to the squirrel! I
could hear him distinctly. The wind outside was madly beating against
the house and trying to force its way through the window, and was
making a hundred strange noises--little sharp shrill broken sounds
that mixed with and filled the pauses between the wailing and
shrieking gusts, and somehow the woodpecker was catching these small
sounds in his beak and turning them into words.

"Hullo!" he said. "Who are you and what are you doing there?"

"I'm a squirrel," responded the other. "I've said so over and over
again, but you will go on worrying me! My only wish is that I could
bring my tail just a little more to the right so as to hide my head
and paws altogether from you."

"But you can't. Hullo! squirrel, what are you doing there? You forgot
to tell me that."

"I'm eating a nut, confound you! You know it; I've told you ten
thousand times. I can't ever get it up quite close enough to bite it
and I haven't tasted one for seventeen years. One forgets what a thing
tastes like."

"I know. I've been fasting just as long myself. Never an ant's egg!
Hullo! Have you got it up? How does it taste?"

"Taste! You fool! If I could only move I wouldn't mind the nut; I'd go
for you like a shot, and if I could get at you I'd tear you to pieces.
I hate you!"

"Why do you hate me, squirrel?"

"More questions! Because you're green and yellow like the woods where
I lived. There were beeches and oaks. And because your head is crimson
red like the agarics I used to find in the woods in autumn. I used to
eat them for fun just because they said they were poisonous and it
would kill you to eat them."

"And that's what you died of? Hullo! Why don't you answer me? Where
did you find red agarics?

"I've told you, I've told you, I've told you, in Treve woods where I
lived, very far from here on the other side of Lostwithiel."

"Treve woods, between the hills away beyond Lostwithiel! Why,
squirrel, that's where I lived."

"So I've heard; you have said it every day and every night these
seventeen years. I hate you."

"Hullo! Why do you hate me?"

"I always disliked woodpeckers. I remember a pair that made a hole in
a beech near the tree my drey was in. I played those two yafflers with
their laugh laugh laugh some good tricks, and the best of all was when
their young began to come out. One morning when the old birds were
away I hid myself in the fork above the hole and waited till they
crept out and up close to me, when I suddenly burst out upon them,
chattering and flourishing my tail, and they were so terrified they
actually lost their hold on the bark and tumbled right down to the
ground. How I enjoyed it!"

"You malicious little red beast! You chattering little red devil! They
were my young ones, and I remember what a fright we were in when we
came back and saw what had happened. It was lucky we didn't lose one!
I shall never speak to you again. There you may sit trying to eat your
nut for another seventeen years, and for a hundred years if this
horrible life is going to last so long, but you'll never get another
word from me."

"I thought that would touch you, woodpecker! Ha, ha, ha--who's the
yaffler now? What a relief; at last I shall be left to eat my nut in
peace and quiet, here in this glass case where they put me."

"Why did they put us here?"

"You are speaking to me! Are the hundred years over so soon?"

"There's no one else--what am I to do? Answer me, why did they put us
here? Answer me, little red wretch! I don't mind now what you
did--they were not hurt after all. You didn't know what you were
doing--you had no young ones of your own."

"Hadn't I indeed! My little ones were there close by in the drey."

"And when they were out of the drey did you teach them to run about in
the tree, and jump from one branch to another, and pass from tree to
tree?"

"I never saw them leave the drey--I was shot."

"Where was that, squirrel?"

"In the Treve Woods where the big beeches are, beyond Lostwithiel."

"Never! Why, that's just where I lived and was shot, too. Did it hurt
you, squirrel?"

"I don't know. I saw a flash and remembered no more until I found
myself dead in the man's pocket pressed against some wet soft thing.
Did it hurt you?"

"Yes, very much. I fell when he fired and tried to get away, but he
chased and caught me and the blood ran out on to his hand. He wiped it
off on his coat, then squeezed my sides with his finger and thumb
until I was dead, then put me in his pocket. There was some dead warm
soft thing in it."

Here there was a break in the talk owing to a momentary lull in the
wind. I listened intently, but the shrieking and wailing noises
without had ceased and with them the sharp little voices had died
away. Then suddenly the wind rose and shrieked again and the talk
recommenced.

"Hullo!" said the woodpecker. "Do you see a man sitting by the fire
looking at us? He has been staring at us that way all the evening."

"What of it! Everyone who comes into this room and sits by the fire
does the same. It's nothing new."

"It is--it is! Listen to me, squirrel. He looks as if he could hear
and understand us. That's new, isn't it? And he has a strange look in
his eyes. Do you know, I think he is going mad."

"I don't mind, woodpecker. I shouldn't care if he were to run out on
to the rocks at the Land's End and cast himself into the sea."

"Nor should I. But just think, if before rashing out to put an end to
himself he should, in his raving madness, snatch down our cases from
the niche and crush them into the grate with his heel!"

"What do you mean, woodpecker? Could such a thing happen?"

"Yes, if he really is insane, and if he is listening to us, and we are
making him worse."

"If I could believe such a thing! I should cease to hate you,
woodpecker. No, no, I can't believe it!"

"Just think, old neighbour, to have it end at last! Burnt up to ashes
and smoke--feathers and hair, glass eyes, cottonwool stuffing and
all!"

"Never again to hear that everlasting Hullo! To hate you and hate you
and tell you a thousand thousand times, only to begin it all over
again!"

"To fly up away in the smoke, out out out in the wind and rain!"

"The rain! the rain!"

"The rain from the south-west that made me laugh my loudest! Raining
all day, wetting my green feathers, wetting every green leaf in the
woods beyond Lostwithiel. Raining until all the stony gullies were
filled to overflowing, and the water ran and gurgled and roared until
the whole wood was filled with the sound."

"No, no, woodpecker, I can't, I can't believe it!"

"It's true! It's true! Don't you see it coming, squirrel? Look at him!
Look at him! Now, now! At last! At last! At last!"

Suddenly their sharp agitated voices fell to a broken whispering and
died into silence. For the wind had lulled again. Looking closely at
them I thought I could see a new expression in their immovable glass
eyes. It frightened me, I began to be frightened at myself; for it now
seemed to me that I really was becoming insane, and I was suddenly
seized with a fierce desire to snatch the cases down and crush them
into the fire with my heel. To save myself from such a mad act I
jumped up, and picking up my candle, hurried upstairs to my bedroom.
No sooner did I reach it than the wind was up again, wailing and
shrieking louder than ever, and between the gusts there were the
murmurings and strange small noises of the wind in the roof, and once
more I began to catch the sound of their renewed talk. "Gone! gone!"
they said or seemed to say. "Our last hope! What shall we do, what
shall we do? Years! Years! Years!" Then by and by the tone changed,
and there were question and answer. "When was that, squirrel?" I
heard; and then a furious quarrel with curses from the squirrel, and
"hullos" and renewed questions from the woodpecker, and memories of
their life and death in Treve Wood, beyond Lostwithiel.

What wonder that, when hours later I fell asleep, I had the most
distressing and maddest dreams imaginable!

One dream was that when men die and go to hell, they are sent in large
baskets-full to the taxidermists of the establishment, who are highly
proficient in the art, and set them up in the most perfect life-like
attitudes, with wideawake glass eyes, blue or dark, in their sockets,
their hair varnished to preserve its natural colour and glossy
appearance. They are placed separately in glass cases to keep them
from the dust, and the cases are set up in pairs in niches in the
walls of the palace of hell. The lord of the place takes great pride
in these objects; one of his favourite amusements is to sit in his
easy-chair in front of a niche to listen by the hour to the endless
discussions going on between the two specimens, in which each
expresses his virulent but impotent hatred of the other, damning his
glass eyes; at the same time relating his own happy life and
adventures in the upper sunlit world, how important a person he was in
his own parish of borough, and what a gorgeous time he was having when
he was unfortunately nabbed by one of the collectors or gamekeepers in
his lordship's service.



CHAPTER XV

SELBORNE


(1896)

First impressions of faces are very much to us; vivid and persistent,
even long after they have been judged false they will from time to time
return to console or mock us. It is much the same with places, for
these, too, an ineradicable instinct will have it, are persons. Few in
number are the towns and villages which are dear to us, whose memory is
always sweet, like that of one we love. Those that wake no emotion, that
are remembered much as we remember the faces of a crowd of shop
assistants in some emporium we are accustomed to visit, are many. Still
more numerous, perhaps, are the places that actually leave a
disagreeable impression on the mind. Probably the reason of this is
because most places are approached by railroad. The station, which is
seen first, and cannot thereafter be dissociated from the town, is
invariably the centre of a chaotic collection of ugly objects and
discordant noises, all the more hateful because so familiar. For in
coming to a new place we look instinctively for that which is new, and
the old, and in themselves unpleasant sights and sounds, at such a
moment produce a disheartening, deadening effect on the stranger:--the
same clanging, puffing, grinding, gravel-crushing, banging, shrieking
noises; the same big unlovely brick and metal structure, the long
platform, the confusion of objects and people, the waiting vehicles, and
the glittering steel rails stretching away into infinitude, like
unburied petrified webs of some gigantic spider of a remote past--webs
in which mastodons were caught like flies. Approaching a town from some
other direction--riding, driving, or walking--we see it with a clearer
truer vision, and take away a better and more lasting image.

Selborne is one of the noted places where pilgrims go that is happily
without a station. From whichever side you approach it the place itself,
features and expression, is clearly discerned: in other words you see
Selborne, and not a brick and metal outwork or mask; not an excrescence,
a goitre, which can make even a beautiful countenance appear repulsive.
There is a station within a few miles of the village. I approached by a
different route, and saw it at the end of a fifteen miles' walk. Rain
had begun to fall on the previous evening; and when in the morning I
looked from my bedroom window in the wayside inn, where I had passed the
night, it was raining still, and everywhere, as far as I could see,
broad pools of water were gleaming on the level earth. All day the rain
fell steadily from a leaden sky, so low that where there were trees it
seemed almost to touch their tops, while the hills, away on my left,
appeared like vague masses of cloud that rest on the earth. The road
stretched across a level moorland country; it was straight and narrow,
but I was compelled to keep to it, since to step aside was to put my
feet into water. Mile after mile I trudged on without meeting a soul,
where not a house was visible--a still, wet, desolate country with trees
and bushes standing in water, unstirred by a breath of wind. Only at
long intervals a yellow hammer was heard uttering his thin note; for
just as this bird sings in the sultriest weather which silences other
voices, so he will utter his monotonous chant on the gloomiest day.

It may be because he sung

   The yellow hammer in the rain

that I have long placed Faber among my best-loved minor poets of the
past century. He alone among our poets has properly appreciated that the
singer who never stops, but, "pleased with his own monotony," shakes off
the rain and sings on in a mood of cheerfulness dashed with melancholy:

   And there he is within the rain,
   And beats and beats his tune again,
   Quite happy in himself.

   Within the heart of this great shower
   He sits, as in a secret bower,
   With curtains drawn about him:
   And, part in duty, part in mirth,
   He beats, as if upon the earth
   Rain could not fall without him.

I remember that W. E. Henley once took me severely to task on account of
some jeering remarks made about our poet's way of treating the birds and
their neglect of so many of our charming singers. In the course of our
correspondence he questioned me about the cirl bunting, that lively
singer and pretty first cousin of the yellow hammer; and after I had
supplied him with full information, he informed me that it was his
intention to write a poem on that bird, and that he would be the first
English poet to sing the cirl bunting.

He never wrote that lyric, "part in duty, part in mirth"; he was
then near his end.

To return to my walk. At last the aspect of the country changed: in
place of brown heath, with gloomy fir and furze, there was cheerful
verdure of grass and deciduous trees, and the straight road grew deep
and winding, running now between hills, now beside woods, and
hop-fields, and pasture lands. And at length, wet and tired, I reached
Selborne--the remote Hampshire village that has so great a fame.

To very many readers a description of the place would seem superfluous.
They know it so well, even without having seen it; the little, old-world
village at the foot of the long, steep, bank-like hill, or Hanger,
clothed to its summit with beech-wood as with a green cloud; the
straggling street, the Plestor, or village green, an old tree in the
centre, with a bench surrounding its trunk for the elders to rest on of
a summer evening. And, close by, the grey immemorial church, with its
churchyard, its grand old yew-tree, and, overhead, the bunch of swifts,
rushing with jubilant screams round the square tower.

I had not got the book in my knapsack, nor did I need it. Seeing the
Selborne swifts, I thought how a century and a quarter ago Gilbert White
wrote that the number of birds inhabiting and nesting in the village,
summer after summer, was nearly always the same, consisting of about
eight pairs. The birds now rushing about over the church were twelve,
and I saw no others.

If Gilbert White had never lived, or had never corresponded with Pennant
and Daines Barrington, Selborne would have impressed me as a very
pleasant village set amidst diversified and beautiful scenery, and I
should have long remembered it as one of the most charming spots which I
had found in my rambles in southern England. But I thought of White
continually. The village itself, every feature in the surrounding
landscape, and every object, living or inanimate, and every sound,
became associated in my mind with the thought of the obscure country
curate, who was without ambition, and was "a still, quiet man, with no
harm in him--no, not a bit," as was once said by one of his
parishioners. There, at Selborne--to give an altered meaning to a verse
of quaint old Nicholas Culpepper--

   His image stampéd is on every grass.

With a new intense interest I watched the swifts careering through the
air, and listened to their shrill screams. It was the same with all the
birds, even the commonest--the robin, blue tit, martin, and sparrow. In
the evening I stood motionless a long time intently watching a small
flock of greenfinches settling to roost in a hazel-hedge. From time to
time they became disturbed at my presence, and fluttering up to the
topmost twigs, where their forms looked almost black against the pale
amber sky, they uttered their long-drawn canary-like note of alarm. At
all times a delicate, tender note, now it had something more in
it--something from the far past--the thought of one whose memory was
interwoven with living forms and sounds.

The strength and persistence of this feeling had a curious effect. It
began to seem to me that he who had ceased to five over a century ago,
whose Letters had been the favourite book of several generations of
naturalists, was, albeit dead and gone, in some mysterious way still
living. I spent a long time groping about in the long rank grass of the
churchyard in search of a memorial; and this, when found, turned out to
be a modest-sized headstone, and I had to go down on my knees, and put
aside the rank grass that half covered it, just as when we look into a
child's face we push back the unkempt hair from its forehead; and on the
stone were graved the name, and beneath, "1793," the year of his death.

Happy the nature-lover who, in spite of fame, is allowed to rest, as
White rests, pressed upon by no ponderous stone; the sweet influences of
sun and rain are not kept from him; even the sound of the wild bird's
cry may penetrate to his narrow apartment to gladden his dust!

Perhaps there is some truth in the notion that when a man dies he does
not wholly die; that is to say, the earthly yet intelligent part of him,
which, being of the earth, cannot ascend; that a residuum of life
remains, like a perfume left by some long-vanished, fragrant object; or
it may be an emanation from the body at death, which exists thereafter
diffused and mixed with the elements, perhaps unconscious and yet
responsive, or capable of being vivified into consciousness and emotions
of pleasure by a keenly sympathetic presence. At Selborne this did not
seem mere fantasy. Strolling about the village, loitering in the
park-like garden of the Wakes, or exploring the Hanger; or when I sat on
the bench under the churchyard yew, or went softly through the grass to
look again at those two letters graved on the headstone, there was a
continual sense of an unseen presence near me. It was like the sensation
a man sometimes has when lying still with closed eyes of some one moving
softly to his side. I began to think that if that feeling and sensation
lasted long enough without diminishing its strength, it would in the end
produce something like conviction. And the conviction would imply
communion. Furthermore, between the thought that we may come to believe
in a thing and belief itself there is practically no difference. I began
to speculate as to the subjects about to be discussed by us. The chief
one would doubtless relate to the bird life of the district. There are
fresh things to be related of the cuckoo; how "wonder has been added to
wonder" by observers of that bird since the end of the eighteenth
century. And here is a delicate subject to follow--to wit, the
hibernation of swallows--yet one by no possibility to be avoided. It
would be something of a disappointment to him to hear it stated, as an
established fact, that none of our hirundines do winter, fast asleep
like dormice, in these islands. But there would be comfort in the
succeeding declaration that the old controversy is not quite dead
yet--that at least two popular writers on British birds have boldly
expressed the belief that some of our supposed migrants do actually "lay
up" in the dead season. The deep interest manifested in the subject
would be a temptation to dwell on it. I should touch on the discovery
made recently by a young English naturalist abroad, that a small species
of swallow in a temperate country in the Southern Hemisphere shelters
itself under the thick matted grass, and remains torpid during spells of
cold weather. We have now a magnificent monograph of the swallows, and
it is there stated of the purple martin, an American species, that in
some years bitter cold weather succeeds its arrival in early spring in
Canada; that at such times the birds take refuge in their nesting holes
and lie huddled together in a semi-torpid state, sometimes for a week or
ten days, until the return of genial weather, when they revive and
appear as full of life and vigour as before. It is said that these and
other swallows are possessed of habits and powers of which we have as
yet but slight knowledge. Candour would compel me to add that the author
of the monograph in question, who is one of the first living
ornithologists, is inclined to believe that some swallows in some
circumstances do hibernate.

At this I should experience a curious and almost startling sensation, as
if the airy hands of my invisible companion had been clapped together,
and the clap had been followed by an exclamation--a triumphant "Ah!"

Then there would be much to say concerning the changes in the bird
population of Selborne parish, and of the southern counties generally. A
few small species--hawfinch, pretty chaps, and gold-crest--were much
more common now than in his day; but a very different and sadder story
had to be told of most large birds. Not only had the honey buzzard never
returned to nest on the beeches of the Hanger since 1780, but it had
continued to decrease everywhere in England and was now extinct. The
raven, too, was lost to England as an inland breeder. It could not now
be said that "there are bustards on the wide downs near
Brighthelmstone," nor indeed anywhere in the kingdom. The South Downs
were unchanged, and there were still pretty rides and prospects round
Lewes; but he might now make his autumn journey to Ringmer without
seeing kites and buzzards, since these had both vanished; nor would he
find the chough breeding at Beachy Head, and all along the Sussex coast.
It would also be necessary to mention the disappearance of the quail,
and the growing scarcity of other once abundant species, such as the
stone plover and curlew, and even of the white owl, which no longer
inhabited its ancient breeding-place beneath the caves of Selborne
Church.

Finally, after discussing these and various other matters which once
engaged his attention, also the little book he gave to the world so long
ago, there would still remain another subject to be mentioned about
which I should feel somewhat shy--namely, the marked difference in
manner, perhaps in feeling, between the old and new writers on animal
life and nature. The subject would be strange to him. On going into
particulars, he would be surprised at the disposition, almost amounting
to a passion, of the modern mind to view life and nature in their
æsthetic aspects. This new spirit would strike him as something odd and
exotic, as if the writers had been first artists or landscape-gardeners,
who had, as naturalists, retained the habit of looking for the
picturesque. He would further note that we moderns are more emotional
than the writers of the past, or, at all events, less reticent. There is
no doubt, he would say, that our researches into the kingdom of nature
produce in us a wonderful pleasure, unlike in character and perhaps
superior to most others; but this feeling, which was indefinable and not
to be traced to its source, was probably given to us for a secret
gratification. If we are curious to know its significance, might we not
regard it as something ancillary to our spiritual natures, as a kind of
subsidiary conscience, a private assurance that in all our researches
into the wonderful works of creation we are acting in obedience to a
tacit command, or, at all events in harmony with the Divine Will?

Ingenious! would be my comment, and possibly to the eighteenth century
mind it would have proved satisfactory. There was something to be said
in defence of what appeared to him as new and strange in our books and
methods. Not easily said, unfortunately; since it was not only the
expression that was new, but the outlook, and something in the heart. We
are bound as much as ever to facts; we seek for them more and more
diligently, knowing that to break from them is to be carried away by
vain imaginations. All the same, facts in themselves are nothing to us:
they are important only in their relations to other facts and things--to
all things, and the essence of things, material and spiritual. We are
not like children gathering painted shells and pebbles on a beach; but,
whether we know it or not, are seeking after something beyond and above
knowledge. The wilderness in which we are sojourners is not our home; it
is enough that its herbs and roots and wild fruits nourish and give us
strength to go onward. Intellectual curiosity, with the gratification of
the individual for only purpose, has no place in this scheme of things
as we conceive it. Heart and soul are with the brain in all
investigation--a truth which some know in rare, beautiful intervals, and
others never; but we are all meanwhile busy with our work, like myriads
of social insects engaged in raising a structure that was never planned.
Perhaps we are not so wholly unconscious of our destinies as were the
patient gatherers of facts of a hundred years ago. Even in one brief
century the dawn has come nearer--perhaps a faint whiteness in the east
has exhilarated us like wine. Undoubtedly we are more conscious of many
things, both within and without--of the length and breadth and depth of
nature; of a unity which was hardly dreamed of by the naturalists of
past ages, a commensalism on earth from which the meanest organism is
not excluded. For we are no longer isolated, standing like starry
visitors on a mountain-top, surveying life from the outside; but are on
a level with and part and parcel of it; and if the mystery of life daily
deepens, it is because we view it more closely and with clearer vision.
A poet of our age has said that in the meanest floweret we may find
"thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." The poet and prophet is
not alone in this; he expresses a feeling common to all of those who,
with our wider knowledge, have the passion for nature in their hearts,
who go to nature, whether for knowledge or inspiration. That there
should appear in recent literature something of a new spirit, a
sympathetic feeling which could not possibly have flourished in a former
age, is not to be wondered at, considering all that has happened in the
present century to change the current of men's thoughts. For not only
has the new knowledge wrought in our minds, but has entered, or is at
last entering, into our souls.

Having got so far in my apology, a feeling of despair would all at once
overcome me at the thought of the vastness of the subject I had entered
upon. Looking back it seems but a little while since the introduction of
that new element into thought, that "fiery leaven" which in the end
would "leaven all the hearts of men for ever." But the time was not
really so short; the gift had been rejected with scorn and bitterness by
the mass of mankind at first; it had taken them years--the years of a
generation--to overcome repugnance and resentment, and to accept it.
Even so it had wrought a mighty change, only this had been in the mind;
the change in the heart would follow, and it was perhaps early to boast
of it. How was I to disclose all this to him? All that I had spoken was
but a brief exordium--a prelude and note of preparation for what should
follow--a story immeasurably longer and infinitely more wonderful than
that which the Ancient Mariner told to the Wedding Guest. It was an
impossible task.

At length, after an interval of silence, to me full of trouble, the
expected note of dissent would come.

I had told him, he would say, either too much or not enough. No doubt
there had been a very considerable increase of knowledge since his day;
nevertheless, judging from something I had said on the hibernation, or
torpid condition, of swallows, there was still something to learn with
regard to the life and conversation of animals. The change in the
character of modern books about nature, of which I had told him, quoting
passages--a change in the direction of a more poetic and emotional
treatment of the subject--he, looking from a distance, was inclined to
regard as merely a literary fashion of the time. That anything so
unforeseen had come to pass,--so important as to change the current of
thought, to give to men new ideas about the unity of nature and the
relation in which we stood towards the inferior creatures,--he could not
understand. It should be remembered that the human race had existed some
fifty or sixty centuries on the earth, and that since the invention of
letters men had recorded their observations. The increase in the body of
facts had thus been, on the whole, gradual and continuous. Take the case
of the cuckoo. Aristotle, some two thousand years ago, had given a
fairly accurate account of its habits; and yet in very recent years, as
I had informed him, new facts relating to the procreant instincts of
that singular fowl had come to light.

After a short interval of silence I would become conscious of a change
in him, as if a cloud had lifted--of a quiet smile on his, to my earthly
eyes, invisible countenance, and he would add: "No, no; you have
yourself supplied me with a reason for questioning your views; your
statement of them--pardon me for saying it--struck me as somewhat
rhapsodical. I refer to your commendations of my humble history of the
Parish of Selborne. It is gratifying to me to hear that this poor little
book is still in such good repute, and I have been even more pleased at
that idea of modern naturalists, so flattering to my memory, of a
pilgrimage to Selborne; but, if so great a change has come over men's
minds as you appear to believe, and if they have put some new
interpretation on nature, it is certainly curious that I should still
have readers."

It would be my turn to smile now--a smile for a smile--and silence would
follow. And so, with the dispersal of this little cloud, there would be
an end of the colloquy, and each would go his way: one to be re-absorbed
into the grey stones and long grass, the ancient yew-tree, the wooded
Hanger; the other to pursue his walk to the neighbouring parish of Liss,
almost ready to believe as he went that the interview had actually taken
place.

It only remains to say that the smile (my smile) would have been at the
expense of some modern editors of the famous Letters, rather than at
that of my interlocutor. They are astonished at Gilbert White's
vitality, and cannot find a reason for it. Why does this "little
cockle-shell of a book," as one of them has lately called it, come gaily
down to us over a sea full of waves, where so many brave barks have
foundered? The style is sweet and clear, but a book cannot live merely
because it is well written. It is chock-full of facts; but the facts
have been tested and sifted, and all that were worth keeping are to be
found incorporated in scores of standard works on natural history. I
would humbly suggest that there is no mystery at all about it; that the
personality of the author is the principal charm of the Letters, for in
spite of his modesty and extreme reticence his spirit shines in every
page; that the world will not willingly let this small book die, not
only because it is small, and well written, and full of interesting
matter, but chiefly because it is a very delightful human document.



INDEX

   A

   Adventures among Birds, 216
   "Age of Fools," story of the, 8
   Agriculture, decay of, in Gloucestershire, 174
   Amazon, double-fronted, 256
   Arnold, Matthew, on birds, 161
   Arthur, King, legend of, 165
   Asses, wild, their braying, 78
   Axe, daws in the valley of Somerset, 59, 61, 187


   B

   Baring-Gould's Broom Squire, 225
   Bath, 66;
       bird life in, 68
   Bee, stingless, in La Plata, its mode of attack, 43
   Beech leaves, 84
   Birds, stuffed, effect of, 1-7;
       at their best, 13-18;
       mental reproduction of voices of, 18-26;
       durability of images of, 28-32;
       their relations with man, 37, 48-50;
       human suggestions in voices of, 121-132;
       rare, their gradual extirpation, 236-248
   Birds of Berkshire, 225
   Birds of Wiltshire, 169
   "Bishops Jacks," at Wells, 61
   Blackbird, 124
   Blackcap, its song, 112-114
   Blue, in flowers, 136, 154
   Booth collection, the, at Brighton, 3
   Brean Down, singular appearance of, 188;
       shildrakes binding at, 194
   Brissot and the Merrimac River, 35
   "British Bird of Paradise," 100
   British Ornithologists's Union, 24
   Broadway, raven superstitions at, 114
   Burns, "Address to a Wood-lark," 127
   Burroughs, John, on the willow wren, 101;
       search for the nightingale, 222


   C

   Carew, Thomas, lines quoted, 144
   Cathedral Daws at Wells, 61
   Cattle, tended by birds, 39
   Chaffinch, song of, 114
   Children, imitative calls of, 177
   Chrysotis guildingi, 250
   Chrysotis lavalaniti, 256
   Collections of birds, small educational value of, 6
   Collectors, destruction of Dartford warblers by, 224-231;
       as law-breakers, 234-237
   Cowper, the poet, on the daw's voice, 74;
       as naturalist, 76


   D

   Dartford warbler, 3;
       dead and alive, 4;
       search for the, 223;
       cause of decrease of, 224;
       gradual extirpation by collectors, 229;
       at its best, 31, 231-234
   Daws, cows and, 39;
       at Savernake, 58, 90-93;
       choice of a breeding site, 58;
       stick-carrying and dropping by, 62-64;
       originally builders in trees, 63;
       at Bath, 66, 71-78;
       their voices, 72-75;
       alarm cry, 92
   Deer and jackdaw, 41
   Destruction of British birds and pressing need for remedy, 224-248


   E

   "Ebor Jacks," 61
   Ebor rocks, former presence of ravens at the, 171
   Exmoor, extirpation of birds by keepers in the Forest of, 170
   Expression in natural objects due to human associations, 133;
       in flowers, 135-137


   F

   Faber, Father, lines on the yellow hammer, 285
   Feathers, falling, birds' fear of, 252
   Ferne, Sir John, on azure in blazoning, 157
   Flowers, expression in, 133, 153;
       human colours in, 135-137;
       vernacular names of, 137-140, 145;
       yellow and white, lack of human associations in, 146-149;
       personal preferences, 153;
       charm due to human associations, 154
   Fowler, Mr Warde, on wagtails, 159;
       on the willow wren's song, 121
   Frensham Pond, swallows and swifts at, 51;
       gold-crests at, 53
   Furze wren, see Dartford Warbler


   G

   Gardens, 151
   Geese, on a common, 78;
       at Lyndhurst, 199;
       their lofty demeanour, 200, 206, 216-221;
       degraded by culinary associations, 201;
       as watch-dogs, 203;
       Egyptian representations of, 203;
       voice of, 210;
       migratory instinct in domestic, 213
   Geese, Magellanic, 204;
       voices of, 205;
       courtly demeanour of, 206;
       a migrating pair of, 214
   Gerarde, 150
   Gold-crests alarmed, 53, 57
   Gould, on abundance of the Dartford warbler, 224
   Gray, Robert, on the gray-lag goose, 210
   Gresset, the story of Vert Vert by, 264
   Grey, Sir Edward, on the study of birds, 33
   Grove, Sir George, blackbird's singing described by, 124
   Guarani, legend of a parrot, 264


   H

   Hastings, daws at, 62
   Henley, W. E. on bird poems, 286
   Herodotus, on flying feathers and snow, 254
   Honey buzzard, destruction of the, 228, 236
   Humming-bird, defending its nest, 42


   I

   Impressions, emotion a condition of their permanence, 6, 15;
       sound, 18;
       durability of, 26


   J

   Jackdaws, see Daws
   Jays, spring assemblies, 94-100;
       mimicry, 95;
       variability of song, 97;
       their call, 99;
       mode of flight, 99;
       British bird of Paradise, 100
   Jefferies, Richard, on yellow flowers, 148


   K

   Kearton, Mr Richard, suggestion for the protection of rare birds
   by, 240
   Kennedy, Clark, on the furze wren in Berkshire, 225
   King Arthur, legend of, 165
   Kingfishers, alive and dead, 12


   L

   Land's End, the, 155
   La Plata and Patagonia, images of birds of, 26
   Lapwing, the spur-winged, and sheep, 44
   Leslie's Riverside Letters, 124
   Letters of Rusticus, 226
   Linnets, a concert of, 188
   Livett, Dr, a raven story told by, 171
   Long-tailed tit at its best, 16
   Lynton, wood wren at, 97


   M

   Macgillivray, on the redbreast, 48
   Magellanic geese. See Geese
   Magpie, manner of flight of, 284
   Mammals, relations of birds with, 38
   Man, from the birds' point of view, 37;
       the robin's pleasure in his company, 48
   Maxwell, Sir Herbert, on the "cursed collector," 161
   Medum, representation of geese at, 203
   Memory of things seen, 18;
       of things heard, 18
   Montagu's Dictionary of Birds, account of the jay in, 95
   Mivart, St George, on dead birds, 270


   N

   Naturalist, the old and new, 294
   Nature, modern sense of the unity of, 294
   Newman on the Dartford warbler, 226
   Nightingale, quality of its voice, 128
   Nothura maculosa, the "partridge" of Argentina, 252


   O

   Ossian's address to the sun, 148
   Owl, wood, hooting of the, 178;
       superstitions regarding the, 181;
       a pet, 184
   Owls, in a village, 173


   P

   Parrot, caged and free, 249;
       the St Vincent, 250, 254;
       history of a double-fronted amazon, 256;
       a lost language talked by a, 258;
       longevity of the, 261;
       tales and legends of the, 264-268
   Partridges and rabbits, 45
   Patti, Carlota, bird-like voice of, 128
   Peregrine falcon, fight with raven, 167
   Peterborough, the great Lord, and a canary, 263
   Pheasant and chicks, 52
   Pigeon family, the, original notes of, 88
   Pigs in the New Forest, 81


   Q

   Quixote, Don, as to tradition of King Arthur, 165


   R

   Rabbits, how regarded by partridges, 45
   Ravens, in Somerset, 160;
       aëreal feat of, 161;
       decrease and disappearance of, 169-170;
       superstitious fear of killing, 165;
       last, 170;
       tapping at lighted windows, 170
   Raven tree, a, 169
   Red, in flowers, human associations of, 141-145
   Redbreast, tameness of the, 48
   Reed warbler, the, in Somerset, 190-191
   Ruskin, "word painting," 72;
       on cathedral daws, 73;
       on the distinction of beauty, 238


   S

   Saintbury, village of, 176;
       owl superstitions at, 180
   St Vincent parrot, 250;
       anecdote of, 254
   Savernake Forest, early spring in, 76;
       daws in, 90;
       jays in, 94
   Sea-birds, protection of, 240, 242
   Seebohm, on the wood wren, 105;
       on the willow wren, 117;
       on jay assemblies, 95
   Selborne, a first sight of, 284;
       changes in its bird population, 293
   Sheep, tended by birds, 39;
       quarrel of a spur-winged lapwing with, 44
   Sheldrake in Somerset, 191;
       tame and wild, 193;
       appearance when flying, 193;
       singular breeding habits, 194-195
   Sigerson, Miss Dora (Mrs Shorter) in "Flight of the Wild Geese,"
   213
   Skylark, song, 116
   Somerset, daws in, 59;
       ravens in, 160;
       red warbler in, 190
   Sound-images, their durability, 18, 21
   Spencer, Herbert, on social animals, 47;
       on the origin of music, 131
   Starlings, their services to cattle, 39;
       abundance at Bath of, 71
   Summer Studies of Birds and Books, 159
   Sunlight, effects on plumage of birds, 3, 12
   Swallows, how man is regarded by, 49-53, 55;
       alarmed by a grey hat, 57;
       quality of the voice of, 125;
       Gilbert White on hybernation of, 291
   Swifts, unconcern of in man's presence, 51;
       at Selborne, 287


   T

   Tennyson, on the speedwell, 149
   Throstle, loudness of its song, 118
   Tits, blue, at Bath, 71;
       long-tailed, seen at their best, 16
   Tree-pipit, quality of voice of, 126


   U

   Upland geese. See Geese.


   V

   Visitants, rare annual slaughter of, 237


   W

   Wagtail, pied, attending cows in the pasture ... quality of voice
   of, 125
   Wallace, Alfred Russel, Bird of Paradise assemblies described by,
   100
   Wells, daws at the cathedral, 60;
       a wood wren at, 102
   White, Gilbert, wood wren's song, described by, 106;
       willow wren's song described by, 122;
       associations with, at Selborne, 288;
       an imaginary conversation with, 291
   Whiteness, in flowers, 146;
       magnifying effect of, 193
   Willersey, owls at, 173;
       a pet wood owl at, 184
   Willow wren, Burroughs on the song of the, 101;
       Gilbert White's description of its song, 122;
       Warde Fowler's description of its song, 121, 122;
       abundance and wide distribution of, 117
   Willoughby, Father of British Ornithology, willow wren described
   by, 118
   Wood lark, Burns' address to, 127
   Wood owl. See Owls.
   Wood pigeon, song of, 85;
       human quality in voice of, 87-90
   Wood wren, at Wells, 102;
       difficulty in seeing, 103;
       inquisitiveness, 104;
       secret of its charm, 114
   Wookey Hole, source of the Somerset Axe, 59
   Wordsworth, bird voices preferred by, 107


   Y

   Year with the Birds, A, 122
   Yellow, in flowers, 146
   Yellow-hammer, singing in the rain, 285



PRINTED BY

TURNBULL AND SPEARS,

EDINBURGH



Transcriber's Notes

Beyond the list of corrections detailed below, a number of minor
corrections may have been applied where commas, or periods were either
missing or existed where other similar usage (for example, index
listings) does not have it.


Typographical Corrections

   Page Correction
     8 Barragan => Barragán
    14 procesess => processes
    19 has becomes => has become
    34 scare => score
    48 een => even
    49 comany => company
    89 accompnay => accompany
   112 shubbery => shrubbery
   150 beauitful => beautiful
   151 adnire => admire
   152 destested => detested
   161 pasages => passages
   175 intervvals => intervals
   203 if => of
   214 yon => you
   226 vey => very
   232 torquoise => turquoise
   233 curosity => curiosity
   246 offender's => offenders
   252 tinamu => tinamou (twice on this page)
   253 tinamu => tinamou
   256 dosing => dozing
   267 familes => families
   303 ascociations => associations





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